Spring is just around the corner and, while we may not start to see blooms and buds for a few more weeks, now is a great time to start preparing our gardens for the growing season and the longer, warmer days ahead.
Most plants stop growing during winter to conserve energy, relying on stored nutrients beneath the soil to sustain them. The arrival of early spring, when an increase in daylight begins to trigger plant growth, is the perfect time to put in a bit of work to help your plants thrive during the year.
Here are four simple, best practices to get your garden ready for spring.
1. Prune trees and shrubs, and cut back perennials
I like starting from the top of my garden and working my way down to the soil because it is the most efficient.
This means that I start with my trees. When I was new to gardening, I was nervous the first few times that I did the pruning of my trees and shrubs—after all, I did it the least!—but it was always easier than I expected and is really important.
Pruning helps maintain the health and appearance of your garden. Removing dead or damaged branches helps stimulate new growth and improve the overall structure of plants. This leads to a healthier and more beautiful landscape.
We are leaving winter and approaching spring, and this is my favorite time to prune deciduous (leafless) trees and shrubs. Because winter is ending, the trees and shrubs are not as likely to be damaged by any upcoming heavy snowfall and, because it is not yet spring, they aren’t yet growing leaves and buds, letting me see the overall shape and structure of them. Plants are still in dormancy too, so the cuts don’t stimulate new growth.
Each garden has its own needs and schedule, and not all shrubs should be pruned now. This is particularly true for shrubs that bloom in the spring, like azaleas, rhododendron, and some hydrangeas. These are shrubs that grow buds on old wood, and they should be pruned just after they finish flowering so that the shrub has time to get its flower buds ready for next season. If these spring-flowering shrubs are pruned now, some of the flower buds might be removed and this makes the shrub look less “full” when fully bloomed.
As a guiding rule, I don’t like to prune more than one-third of a tree or shrub at one time. If it’s dead material, it should be removed. Otherwise, when I’ve finished pruning, I want the total amount of branches that I’ve removed to be less than one-third of the total. Pruning more than this could potentially be too stressful for the plant.
Pruning is part art and part science, so there isn’t always a “right” answer for prioritizing what to remove. To identify what I want to remove, I first start with dead branches or material. This should all go. Removing dead branches will help promote new growth as well as reduce any potential pests and diseases from spreading.
If I haven’t already removed more than one-third of the tree or shrub, I next look for two things.
Inward growing branches should be cut out. This helps the tree to grow outward, allowing air and sunlight to reach the center parts of the trees and shrubs.
Crossing or branches that run parallel to other branches should also be cut.
As you choose what to cut, follow the natural shape and growth patterns of your trees and shrubs.
If I can get everything in options one and two without crossing the one-third mark, I grab it all. Otherwise, I try not to overthink it, choose the “worst” stuff, and know that I can get it next year.
When making the cut, bring the branch all the way back to the larger branch. Then saw or cut it off, leaving a smooth cut rather than a little stub. It’s important to have sharp and clean tools—this gives smooth cuts and doesn’t introduce diseases from the prior season (or other plants).
Having pruned my trees and shrubs, I now turn to my perennial plants. They should be cut back to prepare for new growth. I cut each stem to about six inches above the soil. The cuts will stimulate new growth while still letting me see where the plants are so that I don’t cover it with compost and mulch in the later steps.
If you're not sure how to prune a particular plant, there are a lot of great resources that can help. Especially just starting out, I was nervous to make these types of cuts (especially for the trees), and getting some help gave me a lot more confidence.
One of my favorite resources, is to ask my local master gardeners or extension office. Some of the garden centers in Northern Virginia also offer pruning workshops. If you’ve got a trusted resource online, that’s another great option.
2. Clean up garden beds.
Next, I clean up my messy garden beds. After the winter (and my pruning!), sticks have fallen from the trees above, leaves have blown in, and squirrels have dug holes in my mulch. It’s time to clean up the bed so that I can start preparing the garden so it’s ready for beautiful and healthy growth in the spring.
I put down mulch in the winter to protect my garden soil and allow leaves and old plant material to collect during the winter. These things are important for pollinators and other insects because they can give them a place to hibernate and lay eggs.
Now that our weather in Prince William County is getting warmer, it’s time to remove the leaves, mulch, and other debris. Disease spores can live on these things, so getting them away from plants and soil helps stop them from infecting this year’s plants as they start growing.
I like stripping out everything, right down to the garden soil. This lets me see any new plant growth or any perennials have worked their way partly out of the ground due to winter freezing and thawing (just gently push them back down so the roots aren’t exposed). To remove the winter debris and last fall’s mulch, I just rake lightly across the top of the soil.
If you planted fall annuals that died over the winter, or have some early weeds, now is the great time to pull them out. Please note, all of the things that we’re pulling out of our gardens can be composted in your backyard, or at a local composting facility. This will keep them out of the landfill and return their nutrients to the soil.
I didn’t have a chance to plant a veggie garden last year. However, if you’re working in a vegetable garden, you’ll want to remove any leftover veggies that didn’t make it through the winter.
Last fall, I planted cover crops where I’ll be making my vegetable garden at our Manassas, VA composting facility. This after winter / before spring period is a good chance to mow them to the ground to let the stems dry.
When the soil is warmer, I’ll then till the debris into the soil but it’s still too cold to do this now. Since this will be the first year with this vegetable garden, tilling will allow me to mix the cover crop, some bulk compost, and the local soil. In future years, I’m not planning to till the soil so that it’s a no-till, or no-dig, garden.
Just before spring is a great time to divide mature perennials (if they aren’t blooming). I love to save money when I can, and this is a free and easy way to add a lot more plants to other areas of my landscape.
To divide a perennial, use a sharp shovel and cut down through the center of the plant while it’s still in the ground. Dig up one-half, leaving the other half alone (it’s best not to disturb the roots), and plant it wherever you need another plant. I use the soil from the new hole to fill in the old hole and mix a little bit of compost into both spots. By dividing the perennial now, I’m giving the divided parts to take hold before the summer heat.
Finally, I like to edge my lawn as I head into spring. This gives me a nice clean, crisp line of grass that leads right up to the edge of the garden. Since I haven’t laid down mulch, it’s a good time to stop the lawn grass from creeping into the plant bed. This yearly touchup makes such a nice difference.
Between pruning trees and shrubs and cleaning up the garden beds, I’ve now worked all the way from the top of my landscape (treetops), right down to the garden soil. I’ve made a mess of my landscape with all of the cutting and raking of mulch up to this point, so hitting this milestone always feels good. This is a great pausing point if you’re short on time, or want a quick break.
3. Amend garden soil with compost
Last year’s growth used up nutrients from my garden’s soil. I need to replenish the nutrients and organic matter in my soil so that this year’s plants can grow and blossom just as fully, if not better. I add compost to my garden in the Spring and Fall.
If you haven’t gotten a soil test for your garden recently, by far, the best and first thing to do is to get your soil tested. I do this each time I start working with new soil or it’s been a few years since my last test. I can sometimes guess at what’s going on with a soil but, because so much of the important stuff can only be seen with a microscope, a soil test is the only real way to know for sure.
There are increasingly a variety of reliable, and easy ways to send a sample of your garden soil to a lab that can give you specific recommendations for how to improve your soil. Most often, the tests with give you NPK information, help you check your pH level, and (more expensive tests) can tell how much organic matter is in the garden soil.
The basic soil tests will give you the macro nutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). These are often abbreviated as NPK. Nitrogen is important for leafy green growth, phosphorus helps with root growth and flower development, and potassium aids in overall plant health and disease resistance.
I add compost, a soil amendment, to my perennials, shrubs, and trees twice a year. In my native plants garden, I have really healthy soil already, so I just spread the compost evenly across the top. Over time, the compost works down into the existing garden soil, just like it’s done in nature. The compost will add macronutrients, micronutrients and, most importantly, microorganisms that will give important life to the garden soil.
I’m lucky because I have easy and plentiful access to certified compost for our gardens at the Manassas, VA composting facility. If you have compost that you make at home, I’d use that first. If you don’t have enough finished compost from your home, buying bulk or bagged compost is easy in Northern Virginia. Please just make sure that it is certified so that you know it is reliable and safe—even one application of bad compost can give you poor growing for a couple of years.
Gardens don’t have to have a lot of compost each year. Putting down even just a half inch of compost in the spring and fall goes a long way to improving the soil. A compost calculator can help you figure out how much bulk or bagged compost you need (it can also be used for mulch!).
If you’re doing annuals or a vegetable garden, I’d suggest adding compost a few weeks before planting. This lets the healthy microorganisms in the compost interact with the biology that’s already in the veggie garden soil. You might turn the compost gently into the existing soil if the existing soil isn’t very good and you’ll need to dig in the area for planting.
Some of the local farmers will also apply small amounts of fertilizers to their vegetables. I wrote a piece about Yankey Farms, a cool sustainable farm in Nokesville, VA that uses regenerative agriculture. They use bulk compost throughout their farm, and then supplement that with targeted nutrients (fertilizers) for a few, specific vegetables that have unique nutritional requirements.
If you plan to add fertilizer, it’s best to wait until late March or even early April so that your soil’s temperature is above 50 degrees. It may be helpful to aerate your soil before applying the fertilizer so the nutrients can go deeper.
4. Add mulch to your garden
Compost and mulch are two of the most important things for your garden. Since I’ve now added a small bit of certified compost on top of my soil, I think this is the perfect time to put down a layer of mulch on my garden bed too.
I like putting down my mulch early because soil doesn’t like to sit uncovered. Nature always tries to find a way to cover bare soil and, by getting mulch down now, even if I haven’t yet divided my perennials or done any new plantings, I can get ahead of any weeds that may be just around the corner.
There are so many benefits of mulch, including reducing weeds, slowing soil erosion, moderating the soil temperature, and locking in moisture for the plants’ roots. I also think it looks beautiful and provides a great backdrop when my plants begin to bloom.
I give my garden a good watering and then cover it with bulk mulch. Because I’ve cleared my garden bed already, I know where my plants are. I spread two to four inches of mulch across the top of the compost that I spread in Step 3. It’s important not to cover any plants so I typically stop spreading the mulch a few inches from the base of any plant. Putting mulch all the way to the base of the plant can make it easier for pests and diseases to get to the plant.
It's best to get locally sourced mulch, such as recycled wood or leaves, because these are more environmentally friendly than many store-bought options. I also strongly prefer not to use dyed mulches so that I keep my garden beds and soil healthier.
That’s it! With four broad steps, I’ve gotten my garden beds ready for the spring growing season.
Since I’ve not spent as much time in my garden during the winter, doing these steps early enough helps me to get a good feeling of how my garden has weathered the cold season. I often find a few places where I will want to plant something new, and I now have some time to find the plant and get it in the ground so that its roots take hold well before the summer heat.
At work, our native plant bed is long, so I divide it in half, going through these four steps for the first half one day, and then these four steps in a second day. At home, I do the front of my house in one gardening session, and the back in a second.
I’m tired after a great day of gardening in the sun, but it’s such a good tired! And, I get a big smile every time I see the finished garden.
Freestate Farms makes premium landscaping products—compost, topsoil, and mulch—by recycling food and yard waste in Manassas, VA. Our composts, topsoil, and mulches are specially designed to increase the health and productivity of local soils, and with our focus on sustainable practices, this lets the environment and your garden grow good, together. We sell bulk compost, bagged compost, bulk natural mulches, bulk dyed mulches, bagged dyed mulches, and bulk topsoil.