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Garden tasks to pass the time


First of all, if you’re finding this blog from Young House Love, welcome! I’m thrilled you popped over to see the blog and I hope you enjoy it. I tend to jump around topic-wise, ranging from renovations (currently we’re working on our kitchen) to gardening to DIY projects. If you like what you see, you might want to consider getting posts by e-mail, which you can sign up for just over there —-> to the right.

I was surprised and so honored that John and Sherry from the fabulous Young House Love blog (and New York Times bestselling book) featured our house renovation on their blog yesterday. I loved reading people’s comments about it and I’m happy that some people found a little inspiration in it.

I know I’m not the only frustrated gardener out there chomping at the bit for spring. Winter is hanging on a bit long in many parts of the country. So to help us all out of our funk, I thought I’d share a few things you can do now to get ready for gardening. Some of these things depend a bit on what part of the country you’re in, but up here in zone 5b we’re among the last for spring to show up so there’s a good bet that you should be on this schedule or ahead of it.

Prune SOME shrubs 
The some is key here. You do not want to prune spring blooming shrubs now because they have already set their buds and you will cut off your flowers. The key is finding out if a shrub blooms on “new wood” (stems that grow this year) or “old wood” (stems from last year or before). Some of my favorite hydrangeas like ‘Limelight’ can be pruned to whatever degree is necessary. They don’t need to be pruned though (other than removing dead wood). I should have pruned my Limelights in late February or early March but I just never did. This weekend I’ll put on my boots and stomp through some snow to do a light pruning (nothing like I did a few years ago). The less you prune, the bigger the flowers will be, so keep that in mind. I will just prune the big Limelight by about a third just to keep it in check size-wise. The new Limelights along the deck will just be slightly pruned to shape them a little as they are still growing.

Have no fear, just a few months after pruning, ‘Limelight’ will be looking like this.

The other shrub that is going to get a good pruning is the purple smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria), which I’m embarrassed to say I have never pruned. It was obvious last year that it was all out shape and badly in need of a good prune job. Like most plants that I’m not familiar with the pruning requirements of I did a little research and it turns out that April is the time for pruning them in my zone. Most advice seems to recommend a pretty hefty pruning (down to a foot or 18 inches) for smoke bushes (this is for smoke bushes that are being grown as shrubs, not trained into a tree form). I know it’s tough to do that to a big shrub, but it will recover in no time. The year that you prune, however, you will have no flowers (the “smoke”) so you will have to sacrifice those. That’s OK by me as I’m really interested in the foliage.

The purple foliage of a smoke bush with the pink bloom of clematis ‘Princess Diana’, which grows up its branches in my garden.

Get that compost pile cooking again
Although I add kitchen scraps to the compost pile all winter, I do let it go dormant during winter. I just bought a compost thermometer (I am oddly excited about this purchase) and found that my pile is currently 32 degrees. I don’t think anything is decomposing at that temperature.

As soon as it is workable (and, um, not covered in snow), I will start stirring the pile, adding water if it is too dry. Because I put a lot of well chopped up leaves and yard waste in the pile during our fall cleanup the pile always comes into spring a bit heavy on the “browns” (high in carbon). I kick-start in spring by adding well moistened alfalfa cubes. Alfalfa is very high in nitrogen so really balances things out and getting things decomposing again. I buy a bag of alfalfa cubes at the feed store about once every three years and soak them well in a five-gallon bucket so they break down a bit. Then I pour them into the compost, stir well and within a few days I usually have steam rising from the pile. There is something so incredibly satisfying about making the best thing for your garden. My problem is that there is never, ever enough compost.

Plan your vegetable garden
Ideally you will grab a piece of graph paper to do this, but I’ll be honest and tell you that I usually end up doing it on a piece of scratch paper while watching television, but that’s because I know from previous years about how much space I need for various things. Just putting it on paper helps a lot. Remember not to plant your tomatoes in the same place every year if you can at all help it. They say it’s best to alternate between three different places but I just switch the tomatoes from one side of the raised bed to the other every year. It helps to know how much space things need to grow but keep in mind that you can plant much more intensely if you have very good soil enriched with a lot of compost. That’s the theory I subscribe to. Make the soil as good as you can and then stick a lot of veggies in there. You can also plan out where you’ll be switching things out. For instance, I always place my cucumbers and my peas in the same spot because the peas are usually done by the time it’s time for the cukes to be planted.

Finish your clean up
If you’re like me, sometimes you don’t get to everything that needs cleaning up in fall. I prefer to leave some things, like perennial grasses, standing for winter interest. It’s important to chop off the dead foliage on these as soon as possible (mine are still under snow, but I will do it the second I can get to them). The problem with spring clean up is that you have to be careful about walking in your beds. The last thing you want to do is compact your soil when it is sodden. If I have to step in beds I try to do it in one step instead of tromping all over the place and then I use a rake to reach in and pull out any material I’ve cut down.

So all is not lost as we wait for spring to arrive!

Speaking of spring, don’t forget about the Grand Garden Show on Mackinac Island this summer (check out some of the details here). They now have the website for the event up and complete and I’m absolutely thrilled to see that Stacey Hirvela of Spring Meadow Nursery and Susan Martin of Walters Gardens have joined the line-up. I heard Stacey speak back when she was working at Martha Stewart Inc. and it was memorable.

Jack Barnwell also tells me that he’s got all the private garden owners signed on for tours as well and I can assure you this will be a spectacular opportunity that is probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

Anyway, check out the website for more info or you can call Karen at 906-430-1206 or email her at mackinacgardenshow (at) if you want to ask some specific questions.

4 Responses

  1. Hi, Erin – Congratulations on being featured! Your kitchen looks wonderful….enjoying the photos on Instagram. Yes, we'll be doing lots of pruning this weekend. A bit behind there. Hope the rain will hold off.
    Have a wonderful Easter weekend!!

  2. Just planned my garden, and it felt strange to do so when the temps have been so cold (and we got snow early this week) . . I have a month left before my garden gets planted, so I'm going to bask in the extra free time while I can. 🙂

    What are you planting this year?

  3. Firstly, congratulations on the well-deserved shout-out!!!

    I think I'm like you in the fall….somehow other things take over from the yard clean-up and last minute pruning. But come spring I'm out there. We'll be gently uncovering the flower beds this weekend and picking up twigs. I have a huge old ninebark that needs a good pruning, so if the weather holds that should get done too.

    Hope you have a wonderful Easter, my friend.

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