by Annie Spiegelman, the Dirt Diva
The long winter snooze-fest is over. It’s time for your plants to get back to work! Temperatures are rising (a bit soon!) and waking up the soil microbes who’ve been slacking off underground all winter. These brilliant armies of soil microorganisms are responsible for mobilizing the nutrients and moisture that keep plants growing. As UC Berkeley soil scientist, Stephen Andrews says, “When the weather warms up in the early spring, it’s like someone turned on a disco light. Those microbes wake up and start partying!” This is also the time for the gardener to get oops-up-off the couch (and electronic devices) and begin preparing the yard for spring. Here are a few key duties to attend to now.
- Spray, only if necessary.
If you have fruit trees that get cranky and develop disease or pest problems later in the season, this is the time to spray any deciduous fruit trees with a dormant spray before the leaves and buds form. You can pick up a safe fungicide or horticultural spray at one of our fabulous local nurseries such as Sloat Garden Center or Green Jeans Garden Supply. Ask for the safest product and always wear gloves and safety glasses no matter how benign the product label looks. If your fruit trees do not get infested with insects or diseases like leaf curl, then do not spray. Just pat them on the back and say thank you.
Pruning stimulates the growth of new shoots and helps to keep plants healthy. For novice gardeners, pruning can be a nerve-racking and insecure time, filled with trepidation and angst. And guilt. That’s OK. Plants are much more resilient than they let on. They like you to think they’re delicate and need constant hand-holding, but for the most part, that’s untrue. They’re faking it.
If you were too hungover on New Year’s Day to prune your roses, as I do, drunk or not, get to pruning immediately. I like to air out the center of the rosebush, take out any dead canes or crossing canes, and then cut each cane down to half its size. (I promise it will come back happy!) Be brave, pilgrim, and get to it ASAP.
If the weather stays this warm, later this month, you can also prune other shrubs such as various salvias, fuchsia, artemisia, butterfly bush and lavender. Be brave again, cutting them down to 1-2 feet tall. This will keep them from becoming leggy or hollowed out in the center.
- Divide Perennials. (Yay! Free plants!)
The majority of perennials will need to be divided every 2-3 years to stay healthy. As a plant expands, the middle portion becomes crowded and hungry for nutrients, moisture and light. Another reason to divide plants is that they may be growing too wide for the area you planted them in. This happened to me often as a novice gardener. I had little faith that the plant would succeed and grow rapidly. (My husband, Bill, claims that it’s because I grew up in a New York apartment building where people lived on top of each other; smothering one another with loud opinions and no escape hatch or breathing space. “That is why you unconsciously plant flowers in an overcrowded, abrasive and asphyxiating style …”) See, how blissful marriage can be!
Steps to division:
Choose an overcast day. Do NOT divide plants on a hot, sunny day. That will lead to wilting and death. Not a good look.
First, prepare the hole or a few holes where the newly divided plants will land.
There may be new growth on the plant. Leave it there. Do not cut it down.
Though there are some exceptions, most plants do best when the entire plant is dug out of the ground. Dig your shovel vertically underground 6 inches to a foot deep. Dig wide and deep with your shovel, and dig out the whole clump. Take your time and be ready for some underground resistance.
With your hands or with the sharp edge of the shovel, pull or cut apart the tight roots of the clump into sections. Aim to create 2-4 new plants from the original plant.
A few good plants to divide later this month are: Shasta daisy, Phlox, Heuchera, Chrysanthemum, gaillardia, Geranium, Lily-of-the-Valley and some sages.
4. COMPOST TO THE RESCUE
Clean out raised beds of weeds or dead plants and rake them gently. Then add a 2-3 layer of compost to the top so you can plant new crops next month. This will also allow any new weed seeds to pop-up this month so that you can yank them out easily, one more time, before you plant your spring garden.
Some of my favorite places to purchase mighty compost to make your garden sing are: Point Reyes Compost Co. in Point Reyes Station, American Soil & Stone products in San Rafael and WM Earthcare’s mix at Novato’s Redwood Landfill.
Send Annie some Valentine’s Day flowers at firstname.lastname@example.org.