Every spring, there are a few of those early days when the sun peeks out, the air warms up, and the snow melts. Gardeners begin to stir and wrestle with the temptation to get gardening, despite their better judgement – after all, the widely touted “False Spring” is an Albertan specialty! Though the ground may still be too frozen to dig in, April and May are great months to prepare your yard for the gardening season with a proactive Spring Cleanup!
If you’re itching to get out in the yard, this checklist will walk you through everything you should consider, from early pruning, to pest prevention, to tidying up. (Pssst – scroll to the bottom for the downloadable check-list!)
- Pull back the mulch from around your perennials. If you have beds that are covered in mulch, it can be helpful to begin pulling back your ground cover from around the base of your perennials (if you remember where they are). You may have “buried” your perennials with this mulch in the fall to keep them protected, but even if you didn’t, melting snow and windy conditions can be enough to bury your perennials naturally. Give ’em some room to breathe!
- Consider cleaning up any dead perennial foliage from last summer. If you left your perennial foliage behind last fall to provide some extra protection for the roots (or some extra winter housing for our beneficial bug friends), now is a good time to consider cleaning it up. This dead foliage is a favourite wintering spot for many beneficial bugs, but also for many pests. Clean up carefully, and keep your eye out for tiny helpers such as ladybugs and lacewings. Many gardeners choose not to clean up this foliage until late spring, in favour of these beneficials. However, if you had a particular pest problem in your garden last year (for example red lily beetle, slugs, or birch leaf miner), cleaning up that debris early will remove the larvae, eggs and adults that have taken cover during the colder months, and may help you avoid a nasty sequel to last summer. To clean up, cut back any dead foliage at the base of the plant, leaving any woody stems alone!
- Clean up leaves and garbage that may have blown into your yard. You know, all that extra ‘stuff’ that has collected into the nooks, crannies and corners of your yard over the course of our chinook-y winters.
- Prune to shape your trees & shrubs. If you’ve got some trees or shrubs that are overgrown and need a haircut, you’re safe in the spring to prune back the branches you no longer want. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t remove more than about 30% of the plant at once, and if you’re pruning a blossoming plant, you may prune away flower buds in the process. If you have smaller shrubs that you want to grow fuller or more compact, consider pruning them back several inches (or to the ground) in order to encourage a ‘flush’ of new, fuller growth this spring.
- Wait to Prune Away Winter Kill. ‘Winter kill’ is a reality here in Alberta, and some of your trees & shrubs may have lost a branch (or two) during our long, inconsistent winter. Wait until well into the spring (late June, even July) to prune back any dead branches, in case they’re not dead! It’s not uncommon for plants to have dead-looking branches that come to life after a period of delay. If you’re unsure, scratch the surface of the bark to see if there is any green underneath. Green means there is life, and patience is key.
- Consider turning over the soil in wet or compact garden beds. The age-old gardening practice of tilling or “turning over” your soil does help to expose molds, mildews and fungi to the air, which can help keep plant diseases and infections to a minimum. This practice also helps to introduce oxygen to the soil, which can aid in healthy decomposition. However, if your soil beds aren’t soggy or packed down, consider leaving them alone! Mother Nature is an expert in all things soil, and every time we dig, we disturb a myriad of soil life that is already working wonders.
- Add compost or manure to garden beds. Compost and manure are great, natural ways to replenish your beds with fresh nutrients. Adding these natural nutrient sources to your gardening beds before planting season gives them time to incorporate into the soil and begin breaking down into their most useful forms.
- Add zeolite to clay or hard-packed soil. Zeolite does a fantastic job of redistributing nutrients among soil particles, which will help to break down clay and hard-packed soil over time. Consider sprinkling some of this helpful mineral on your problem areas, and let natural water sources (like melting snow or rainwater) incorporate it into the ground.
- Top up your beds with mulch or soil as needed. If you have some beds that are looking a little empty, now is a great time to top up the soil or mulch, before your plants begin growing for the season.
- Rake the dead thatch out of your grass. Pro Tip: Don’t do this until your lawn is dry, or you may accidentally tear up your grass! Once your grass is dry enough, grab a rake and give it a solid ‘once over.’ Removing as much dead thatch as possible will encourage new, lush, green growth, giving your lawn a chance to thicken back up for the season.
- Consider using tree wrap on your birch trees. Birch Leaf Miner is a nasty pest ’round these parts, and they have been particularly bad in recent years. They specifically affect birch trees, and though they typically won’t kill your tree, they can do major cosmetic damage (you can read more about them here). BL miner will overwinter in the soil beneath your birch tree(s), crawling up the trunk in the spring to feed on the leaves. Horticultural Tree Wrap & Tanglefoot Tree Paste creates a sticky barrier that will trap these crawlers as they come out of hibernation, before they’re able to nestle into the leaves of your tree.
- Unwrap your trees and shrubs from their winter protection. Let those babies breath! If you wrapped any of your plants with protective bark wrap, burlap, or used a mulch collar, it’s time to remove those protective layers so your plants can have easy access to air and space as they come back to life.
- Fertilize your grass. Most grass fertilizers are designed to release ultra-slow, so spreading a nice granular fertilizer on your lawn now will ensure that those nutrients are available to your grass when it begins to grow.
- Wait to fertilize your trees, shrubs and perennials until mid-April. Fertilizing in the spring is an important way to give your plants a kick-start for the season. Most plant fertilizers (with the exception of grass fertilizer) are meant to be applied when your plants are ready to absorb them (even if they are a ‘slow-release’), so wait until about mid-April to apply fertilizers to your trees, shrubs and perennials to ensure that their roots are out of dormancy, and they’re ready to absorb those nutrients before they are washed away. Use an organic slow-release like this one for best results!
- Attract some pollinators & beneficial bugs. Consider planting some wildflowers, or other pollinator favourites to attract hummingbirds, bees, ladybugs, dragonflies and other beneficial helpers to aid the growth of your garden, and keep pests at a minimum throughout the summer. Sew your seeds or plant your pots up after the last frost – typically late May or early June.
- Break out the hose & turn on the water. To keep your hoses and taps in tip-top shape, it’s always a good idea to unhook and drain them for the winter. So turn that water supply back on and hook up those hoses once they’re no longer in danger of freezing! You’ll want them to be at your fingertips when you’re ready to get watering. Speaking of which…
- Get watering. It’s usually a good time to start watering once you begin to see signs of activity about the soil. If your perennials are sprouting, trees are leafing, and shrubs are budding, they’ll benefit from a good spring drink. If it’s a particularly dry spring, you may even want to start watering earlier to give the roots a good soak.
- Be Prepared for Pests. While everything is coming back to life, some hungry pests are coming out of hibernation too! To stay ahead of a nasty infestation, common remedies like Diatomaceous Earth or Insecticidal Soap are super helpful to have on hand so you’re ready to respond quickly and proactively.
- Sweep (or powerwash) patios and decks. Let’s be honest, the winter winds & melting snow can leave an icky layer of grime behind. Give your surfaces a quick clean so you’re ready to make the most of the sunshine while it’s here!
- Break out your lawn furniture, solar lights, and garden decor! The sun is out, and you’ll want to be too! Do yourself a favour and make your outdoor space an enjoyable, comfortable place to be. You’ll love the convenience of being able to walk out your door and into your own oasis when opportunity knocks.
Download the free printable checklist below!