Spring is the busiest season in the garden. Professional gardener Janet Macunovich advises the more work we do in April, the less work we will have in July. By doing the perennial garden clean-up early, later in the summer all we will need to do is pull out an occasional weed and relax with a cold drink. These chores include raking out old mulch, digging and dividing plants, planting new plants, re-trenching our borders and remulching.
Macunovich, who works from dawn to dusk the entire month of April in gardens in lower Michigan, is a professional gardener and garden writer. Like those of us in northeast Ohio, cold winter months mean we are often out of shape and under conditioned for heavy gardening work. According to the Web site medicinenet.com, simply by doing moderate gardening activities, an average-sized woman can burn more than 300 calories each hour she spends doing intense gardening. If that isn't incentive enough to get moving, just think of the beautiful results you can enjoy all summer by devoting April to the garden.
I like to start my garden maintenance with a general clean-up. My dogs, husband and anyone else who would like to pitch in is welcome. The dogs aren't usually much help, preferring to sniff around the rakings and generally stand in the way most of the time, but they are great company, regardless. Simply by picking up dead branches and debris that were blown down over winter, or were left over from the fall, we benefit from aerobic bending exercises. But here's a tip about that debris. Don't let it lie in the yard too long without hauling it to the curb or grinding it into mulch. You could even pile it in a nearby field, away from the house and gardens for wildlife to enjoy.
On a recent cold morning my husband asked what was the bird sitting on the recently trimmed grape vines? He was on bird patrol ever since he happened to catch a blue heron happily perched on the edge of his fish pond, possibly eyeing breakfast. The bird on the grapevines, however, was not a heron. When the bird took flight it was evident it was a hawk. Just knowing a hawk was checking out the pile of grape brush was proof enough that some small creature had decided to create a habitat in the shelter of the pruned vines. It is spring and animals are nesting. It doesn't take long for wildlife to move in when they see a good situation. The same happens in our gardens when we leave all that clutter behind.
Once the garden is all nice and spiffy, it's time to get into the trenches. If your garden beds are edged with trenches, the best time to cut and shape them is now when the ground is still soft from spring rains. Use a sharp spade for the job. Cut into the soil no deeper than four inches, keeping the outside cut straight and bringing the spade up to curve the inside edge of the trench. It doesn't take long at all to clean cut the trenches and this job should be done twice each season at the beginning and again in August.
Finally, rake away the old, decomposing mulch and add any soil amendments as needed, usually in the form of composted organic material. Now your gardens are ready for planting. Once you have purchased new plants for the season, you can put down new mulch, but if you prefer not to wait for fear weeds will find their way in, go ahead and mulch now. Remember that you will have to pull the mulch aside when planting later.
Gardening is therapeutic. All of these activities help maintain good physical health. Activities that include hoeing, raking and digging are aerobic exercises and help strengthen muscles. And just like going to the gym or preparing to do your at-home fitness routine, you will need to warm up and cool down before and after beginning the strenuous work of gardening.
Begin by stretching for five or 10 minutes before starting to work in the garden. Alternate between activities every 15 minutes to avoid muscle strain. That means, stop digging or raking for a few minutes and prune or plant something instead.
Here are a few gardening exercises you can do that will help keep you in shape for the more difficult chores:
l While weeding with a hand tool, you can either bend one leg down to the ground and bend the other knee, but keep both feet flat on the ground. If your knees are in good shape, you can squat with both feet flat on the ground, or you can kneel with both knees on a soft pad. You also can sit on a small stool while weeding. Some garden stools have cubbies for storing gloves and hand tools and some even have wheels, although I've never been able to get them to move well in a soft garden bed.
l While raking, bend at the knees and use tools that have long handles enabling you to stand as straight as possible. Backaches are often the result of using tools with handles that are too short for the person using them. Alternate between your right and left hand. The same goes for digging. After digging or raking for a while, it might be a good idea to stretch a bit more to keep muscles warmed up.
l After gardening, cool down. Enjoy your work by walking through the gardens, plucking at flowers and leaves, pinching off faded blossoms or doing some minor pruning on smaller plants.
Believe it or not, there is a National Gardening Exercise Day. It isn't until June 6, but don't wait until then to get into the garden start working out.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.