Tue March 24, 2020
March is the perfect time of year to dust off those gardening tools and embark on some pre- season cleanup around the yard! Get out while temperatures are warming up, and before your garden plants begin to burst with new leaves and blooms.
Trim hedges, shrubs and trees before leaves or flowers begin to emerge. Most shrubs can be trimmed at the end of winter or beginning of spring. Exceptions include any spring-flowering shrubs such as forsythias, spring witch hazels, spicebushes, Korean spicebush viburnums, which are better pruned shortly after flowering is over.
Use hand pruners or larger pruning shears while cutting back to the next leaf bud. You can hedge for shape, or selectively remove a few larger, older stems to encourage new, healthier, more vigorous growth (see image to the right). Be sure to sterilize any cutting tools with a bleach solution or Lysol-type spray to avoid spreading plant pathogens and diseases between cutting on individual shrubs and trees.
If you are pruning on a spring-flowering tree or shrub, instead of getting rid of the branches, put them in a vase inside! If your timing is right (if it was close to blooming) you can “force” it to bloom early and have an early spring display indoors! This is fun to do with redbuds, serviceberry trees (Juneberries) and other spring-bloomers.
Trim back herbaceous (plants that die-back to the ground in winter) flowers and grasses between 2-4 inches above the ground. Be careful not to accidentally cut back any fresh green leaves poking up through old growth. Be sure to wear gardening gloves, especially with grasses, which can be quite sharp. If your grasses are large, you can tie them up with a piece of twine or rope first to make removal cleaner and quicker.
While you’re trimming hedges or cutting back old grasses and flowers from your garden beds, remember the little guys. Many insects (like praying mantis) lay eggs on plant stems in the fall, or insects like butterflies and moths may overwinter under leaves. Instead of raking, bagging and tossing out all that rich organic material, consider repurposing it or composting it back into the garden. Butterflies such as the black swallowtails (see images to the right) are a prime example of over-wintering insects and how easily their chrysalis can be missed.
If you cut your plant material into smaller pieces (think of yourself as a giant paper shredder) those small pieces can be placed back around your emerging perennials as a natural mulch that will help improve your soil quality as it breaks down. Mulches add nutrients to your soil, help suppress weeds, and help retain soil moisture. Best part of all….it’s FREE! Processing your dead plant material back in your garden will also help you more closely examine the smallest wildlife in your yard. *If plant material is diseased, throw it away instead of composting it in.