I think it’s safe to say that we are all excited that spring is finally here. Back to back brutal winters have taken their toll on our emotions, our strength shoveling ourselves out and with certainty our gardens. As the snow melts its time to access the damage this winter has done to our green spaces. Snow mold on our lawns, winter injury (desiccated foliage), broken branches and plants that simply could not survive winters wrath are all real problems after this winter. That said, now is the time to actively prune, feed and tend to our gardens.
Pruning, it seems, is looked upon as a daunting and arduous task by many homeowners. Feelings of apprehension and uncertainty come to mind; many just need to understand a few basic principles. First, pruning is necessary for a plants structural integrity. Health and vigor are immediate benefits behind thoughtful cuts. Often plants become too weak over time and when pruning seems to be the only answer the severity of the cut only adds to the drama. Trees and shrubs that flower before the end of June (rhododendron and azaleas) should be pruned right after they flower. Pruning these types of plants now will sacrifice their flowers going forward. Plant material that flowers after the end of June should be pruned now, late winter/early spring, before their new growth starts. Look for discolored tips on the ends of your plants now also. A light greyish-brown color on the extremities of your woody plants, coupled with a definite brittleness will be first sign indicators that it’s OK to prune those ends off. Be thoughtful when you prune and go back to pliable, healthy tissue.
The obvious reason for pruning, it can prevent trees and shrubs from overgrowing their space in the landscape. However, removing undesirable growth, sucker growth, weak and overcrowded growths are also valid reasons and will help contribute to a plants visual balance. Removal of the current years older flowers and fruit clusters will promote flower buds going forward. Look for any weak crotches, torn branches and cracked limbs from this winter too. Be cognizant of the plants natural form and try to refrain from making a mockery of the plant by pruning it into some artificial geometric shape.
Even if you are lucky enough to start with rich garden soil, most of us don’t start here by the way, as your plants grow they will absorb and deplete the nutrition they once had. Looking at a bag of fertilizer you will quickly identify 3 numbers. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N-P-K) that make up 3 of the 6 primary nutrients that a plant requires. Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, which come from air and water, make up the other 3. Nitrogen (N) is responsible for strong stem and foliage growth. Phosphorus (P) helps with healthy root growth and flower and seed production while Potassium (K) is responsible for improving the overall health and disease tolerance of a plant. Back when I was studying at Rutgers University, a trick I was taught for remembering this was (Up, down, all around). Up for green growth, down for roots and all around for the overall health of the plant. Remembering this when looking at a fertilizer package and you can quickly begin to see how marketing comes into play. Well-fed plants are healthier, more productive and arguably more beautiful. Many fertilizer bags have a vocabulary that suggest feeding at full strength in the spring and half strength in the fall for your trees and shrubs. Whatever you feel is appropriate for your plants, know this, by not letting your plants go hungry, you will improve their health and cosmetics.
When it comes to watering your plants in your garden there are no hard fast rules. The plant, its soil, the weather, the time of year and 50 other variables all contribute to the plants need for water. Simply put, it’s trial and error until you get a feel for it. Remember that it’s the roots that need water, not the leaves. Wetting the foliage is a waste of time and resources and can promote the spread of disease. Slow, early morning drinks are best for our green friends and a generous application of mulch around your plants reduces surface runoff and slows down evaporation from the soil. Simple routine maintenance will help insure that your garden continues to grow.