It’s starting slow, like a little rock making its way down a hill. Then the momentum starts gathering. Soon, the pebble is crashing through all sorts of things as it heads toward the bottom. That’s the way spring gardening seems to go.
It’s starting slow, like a little rock making its way down a hill. Then the momentum starts gathering. Soon, the pebble is crashing through all sorts of things as it heads toward the bottom.
That’s the way spring gardening seems to go.
One warm day does it. Then another day. Then a third. Soon the days start piling up, and anytime the sun comes out, whether you’re indoors or not, the garden itch starts to build.
It doesn’t help when grass takes on a green tinge, though now it looks like pea soup made with canned peas. It doesn’t help that tree and shrub buds are swelling, and if you were lucky to plant some snowdrops or winter aconites, you’ll notice them up and blooming.
Historically, March is the start of our garden month. Many folks wait until April, which isn’t wrong, but anything you can get done in March is time free in April to do other things, like strolling through the woods before poison ivy comes out.
However, getting the gardening itch too early can cause problems later.
The biggest problem comes with the desire to do something. Anything. Just something to get yourself outdoors.
You can’t do anything about the sky. What’s left is the soil, just lying there under piles of leaves and garden debris with no defense at all.
The sooner you can work the soil, the better — within limits. The spirit and shovel are ready, but the soil may not be.
First, don’t work wet soil. Wet soils lose their natural structures. Nature gives it drainage and air pores. Tilling and shoveling wet soil can destroy that natural drainage, and compact the air pores, making it difficult for roots to spread out and down.
One of the most noticeable effects comes later when the soil forms a crusty layer on top, impenetrable to water. You have to go back and scratch the surface with a hoe or garden prong cultivator to loosen it up and allow water to soak in.
Secondly, wet soil tends to retain the shape of whatever pressed into it. Footprints in the lawn don’t magically disappear if you walk across it at this time of the year, unless the ground is frozen. You’ll find them present in April, May and June.
Finally, working wet soil is just messy. You end up with layers of mud caked on your shoes and shovels. You have to stop every five minutes and scrape the gunk off everything.
On the other hand, if the soil is dry enough to work, you can’t find a better time. Soil that’s dry enough tends to crumble when pressed into the palm of your hand instead of forming a dish with a thumbprint in the middle.
You can add organic matter. You can fertilize with the intention of getting a jump on spring vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and lettuce.
Let’s go back to the pile of leaves and debris on top of the ground.
If you wait long enough, there’s a good chance leaves will blow away unless you have a fence around your yard, in which case they seem to pile up in one area. That makes raking and discarding much easier.
The odds are in the favor of the plants at the moment. Generally, we’re past the point of subzero temperatures, though the key word here is “generally.” Removing leaves used as mulch probably (another key word) won’t result in damage to the plants, and may actually warm up and dry out the soil.
If you have any foreboding that cold will return, pile the leaves in one corner of the yard to use in an emergency to protect the plants.
Rake the leaves carefully. There might be plants starting to emerge in the flower garden buried under the leaf litter. Day lilies and sedums are poking through, but waiting for warmer temperatures.
Some of the tulips and daffodils are starting to poke through. Avoid damaging them as you remove the leaves. A fine leaf rake or a leaf blower are the best options after getting down on your hands and knees and using your hands to remove the leaves.
David Robson is a horticulture educator for the University of Illinois Extension. For more gardening information or for your local extension unit office, go to www.extension.uiuc.edu/mg. The Sangamon-Menard Unit Sangamon County office can be reached at 782-4617.