Rise and Shine

Chores for early spring gardening

By Ronnie Dimig

Successful gardening often requires getting down on your hands and knees to do the work. Early spring is the time to exert some control over the natural world to encourage healthy growth. The “digger tool” is essential for making a long-term difference. Get close up, then find and remove small trees, vines, and weeds from the roots as they start to sprout. It is definitely worth the considerable effort!

Living in denial this time of year can be delightful for the Midlands gardener. During this special season, hours spent in the garden are soothing to body and soul. Who among spring gardeners willingly visits memories of sweltering summers, times when just getting from the car to the house can induce sweat?

I prefer those memories to be locked tightly in an imaginary box and placed high on a bookshelf. Doing so provides the opportunity for a few months in the garden blissfully unburdened by the knowledge of what is just around the corner.

So, what does the early spring garden need from us? Gardening is about exerting some level of control over the natural world. We may attempt to exercise a great deal of control, just a little control, or some amount in between. Successful gardening does require management; sometimes we make decisions that work well for plants, and other times, our decisions create situations that make it difficult to keep plants alive. One way that gardeners can encourage healthy growth and development of our shrubs requires Sherlock Holmes detective work and flexible bodies, be it ours or that of a nimble helper. 

Any time is a great time to get down on your knees in the garden. If you have not done so in a while, do so now. If the knees do not allow, bend over, way over, or find a helper. Getting your eyes as close to the base of plants as possible is a great way to start early spring care of shrubs and trees. It is also a great place to start when something does not seem quite right with a plant.    

Leaf mulch provides many benefits, but there can be too much of a good thing. When azaleas, boxwood, and other shrubs that grow beneath trees have been regularly visited by a monster blower, a significant buildup of debris within and underneath the plants may occur. The lack of air movement caused by a buildup of debris creates an environment that can challenge the plants’ health. Leaves, both fallen and blown, can become tightly packed in between branches and at the base. Gathered there, they create a perfect environment for unwanted pests and diseases.

Correcting this common problem can be challenging as fallen leaves and branches are not easily removed with tools. A rake will not do the job for leaves that have been blown and packed tightly in between branches or piled up and wedged in at the base of the plant. This work is best done by hand. I find it helpful to have a tarp nearby for collecting the debris.

Lucky are the creatures living in a yard that has an area where these leaves can be redistributed. While too many leaves at the base of a plant can cause harm, the breakdown of these leaves in another area of the garden will enrich the soil and provide habitat for many living things.

As we become increasingly aware of how our gardening choices affect the environment, we find ourselves considering why we do what we do and how we might do things differently. One change we can adopt is to use leaves as the natural mulch that they are, allowing them to remain on our property, providing habitat as they break down and enrich our soil. Raining down from above, leaf mulch is delivered yearly, free of charge, by the trees growing in your yard. Consider ways of allowing fallen leaves to remain on your property as they finish out their cycle of habitat, decay, and enrichment. Between 2 and 4 inches of mulch — whether in the form of leaves, straw, or wood — helps with moisture retention and weed control.

Not just leaves can be a problem at the base of plants. Hardwood mulch is spread in beds to suppress weeds, hold in moisture, and neaten the look of the garden. Often this mulch winds up piled against the base of plants, where it holds moisture against areas of the plant such as the root flare where good air flow is vital. Too much mulch underneath plants can also make it difficult for plant roots to breathe oxygen.

Similarly important, you should remove any excess growing medium in nursery containers. A buildup of growing medium may suggest what would be an improper planting depth. Feel around in the medium and locate the point at which the first main roots attach to the trunk of shrubs and trees to determine the actual planting depth.

While down on your knees and underneath shrubs with eyes close to the ground, another important gardening activity is to look for and remove small trees, vines, and weeds. This is most easily accomplished following a good rain. Unwanted plants hiding there are ready to take hold and take off during the coming growing season. Pulling these plants out by the roots when small will prevent one of the most difficult problems to deal with in the garden. Once an unwanted plant has a firm hold within the root system of an established shrub, the gardener’s small regularly occurring nuisance has turned into a real challenge.

A favorite tool I call “the digger tool” is perfect for removing unwanted plants. Also called a pick mattock hoe or weeding hoe pick, this tool is helpful for loosening the soil so that weeds can be pulled out by the roots. In fact, the digger tool is so important in my life as a gardener that I struggle if it is not nearby. Having three is a real plus. That way the gardener can count on being able to find one. Even after applying red duct tape to the handle of my gardening tools, they still have a way of disappearing somewhere in the garden.

The pointed end of the digger tool is great for weeding. Hold the unwanted plant in one hand. Grasping the tool in the opposite hand, strike the ground with the pointed end of the tool. Use a tap, tap, tap motion to loosen the soil at the base of the plant. While tapping, gently pull on the plant. This will reveal the path of the roots and areas that may need a bit more loosening of the soil. Of course, sometimes this will turn into an all-out war. The steady tapping will suddenly become a forceful, repetitive swinging motion. This motion, or commotion, results in mighty blows that cause passersby to wonder at this display of aggression. Truth be told, I am sure that I have unknowingly had eyes locked in my direction while I did battle with that bizarre mass lurking beneath the soil where a catbrier, or Smilax gluaca, has taken hold. Some unwelcome visitors beneath shrubs require more than a digger tool to remove. If you have ever successfully faced off with catbrier, you may have wanted your picture taken with the large and mysterious tuber you excavated.    

Removing excess debris and pulling unwanted plants from beneath shrubs does not give the gardener much immediate visual gratification, but if a battle has been fought, a certain sense of smug satisfaction can be enjoyed, especially when considering the effort required. Although the immediate visual difference may be minimal, the long-term difference can be significant.

If the gardener is lucky enough to enlist the aid of a helper for excess debris and unwanted plant removal, I highly recommend guidance. While successful removal of debris can be easily observed, the same cannot be said for unwanted growth.

There is weeding and then there is weeding. The garden helper needs to know and fully understand that removing these unwanted plants by the roots is the goal. Working at a fast pace is great, but when doing so, you or your helper does not want to snap off the growth and leave the roots behind. Depending on the particular weed, you may find it more effective to move a little slower, pulling a bit more gently. While crouched in this awkward position, down at the base of our shrubs, the goal is to make it count with total elimination.

At some point, that imaginary box on the shelf, filled with memories of sweltering summer days, will start rattling. This rattling of the box may persist for a while as temperatures warm but remain tolerable. At some point, the lock will release. Memories of past summers will spring forth unexpectedly as if out of a jack-in-the-box, becoming daily reality. When summer arrives, removing excess debris and weeding unwanted plants growing beneath shrubs becomes much more difficult to do. Consider putting these two important tasks on your “to do” list this spring.

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