This time of year is what I like to call ac/heat season.
The nights are still cold enough that we usually need the heater to come on a few times while we are sleeping, but the day temperatures are getting warm enough that when the sun beats through the window glass, we either have to turn on the air conditioner or open those windows for relief.
This is also the time the garden chores start to heat up some days and cool down on others. We still have to dodge a few snowy or rainy days but we have to try to get as much done in the garden as we can to avoid being hit with all the chores at once.
A gardening friend and author once told me, "The work we do in March and April will determine how much free time we have in July." So what work do we need to do now?
Last month I mentioned our few days of thaw before another snow hit were the perfect opportunity to clean fallen branches and twigs from the yard as well as preliminary pruning on some trees and shrubs. This month's chores are a little more intense and just like our spring house cleaning or any major overhaul, chances are we'll make it look worse before it starts to look better.
Take for example cleaning out the perennial beds. Now is the time to start cutting back the stalks and stems that were left from last fall. Ornamental grasses should be sheared as far to the ground as you can. If new growth has begun, shear only to the top of the new growth. It is important to cut the old, dead grasses before the new growth gets too tall or it will be impossible to do later.
The same goes for flowers that start their season from below - hellebores, sedum (particularly fall bloomers), Russian sage, coneflower and just about anything that pushes up from its center crown. You'll want to trim before new growth shows itself on the surface. Cut away the wilted, winter-burned leaves. New ones will come up with the flower buds.
Know what you're pruning. Don't cut back the dead-looking vines on your spring flowering clematis or you will cut away this year's blooms. The same goes for forsythia, lilac and other spring flowering shrubs and perennials. Don't touch your hydrangea unless you have 'Endless Summer' or another new variety that grows on new wood.
What you can do with pussy willow or forsythia (please don't put an "n" in there and call it "for-cynthia"), is cut off a few nice branches with unopened flower buds and bring them indoors. Put those branches in a vase of tepid water and they will open for you a few weeks before you'll have flowers outside. You'll start to believe that old groundhog was right after all.
While you're doing all that trimming and pruning, be sure to haul all the debris to the compost pile. If you don't have one, now is the perfect time to start a pile. If you don't have space for making compost, use a galvanized trash can you've drilled a few holes in the bottom and sides for aeration and make your own composter. Lack of space is no longer an excuse. I've seen it done in a five gallon bucket.
Once the trimming has been done, you can start to rake away the debris and mulch from last year. If the mulch is still good, put it in a pile or on a tarp for safe-keeping. Once the mulch has been cleared away, top-dress your gardens with fresh compost, a little light fertilizer or fish emulsion and start planning what you will be dividing and moving around, as well as what new plants are on your list for this season. Hold off putting down new mulch until you've done the dividing and new planting.
Some gardeners I've talked to have already planted garden peas and spinach seeds for this year, but my vegetable garden is still too wet for planting just yet. That's okay because there's still plenty of time. In the meantime, I've started seeds indoors of onions, herbs, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables and flowers I intend to put in the garden in the next six to eight weeks.
Spring might still be lurking around the corner, but gardening season is finally here. Get started before it passes you by.