Mark, get set, sprint now to save summer hours

You're out there.

Of course you are. Inspecting every new crocus and snowdrop, greeting daffodils, tulips and foxtail lily by name even though none is more than a green nub breaking ground. Overall, the landscape is still more straw-brown than green but you can feel it coming so you say, "I can't wait..."

Don't rush it

No! Don't make that wish! Don't rush it. And don't wait for a better day, even if March hasn’t reached its going-out-like-a-lamb stage. Put on your gloves, grab your pruning snips or spade and take advantage of this oh-so-brief moment on the edge.

Right now you can walk easily through beds on dry ground, no worries about crushing the air out of the soil. You can work comfortably since there is plenty of room for feet, tools, tarp.

It is so wonderful to see spring coming in little buds and brave first flowers! We do love to look for it, even if the non-gardeners shake their heads at us as we bend over what others see as a landscape still boringly brown and bare.

It is so wonderful to see spring coming in little buds and brave first flowers! We do love to look for it, even if the non-gardeners shake their heads at us as we bend over what others see as a landscape still boringly brown and bare.

We returned from a Far West vacation this week and ran right out to examine the flowers: snowdrops, Lenten rose, bulb iris, crocus and puschkinia. Daffodils, tulips, foxtail lily, quamash and fritillarias are breaking the surface, too, but it does still look more wintry than springy here in zone 5-6 Michigan.

We returned from a Far West vacation this week and ran right out to examine the flowers: snowdrops, Lenten rose, bulb iris, crocus and puschkinia. Daffodils, tulips, foxtail lily, quamash and fritillarias are breaking the surface, too, but it does still look more wintry than springy here in zone 5-6 Michigan.

Iris reticulata ‘White Caucasus’. The dwarf bulbous iris (Iris reticulata, I. danfordiae and hybrid varieties) follow close on snowdrops as our first color. The species is a rich purple, and we love it for itself and its many varieties in the blue violet range. Yet we are particularly fond of the ‘White Caucasus’ variety which stands out so much more against dark soil.

Iris reticulata ‘White Caucasus’. The dwarf bulbous iris (Iris reticulata, I. danfordiae and hybrid varieties) follow close on snowdrops as our first color. The species is a rich purple, and we love it for itself and its many varieties in the blue violet range. Yet we are particularly fond of the ‘White Caucasus’ variety which stands out so much more against dark soil.

Our own worst enemy

The edges of the bed are a bit fuzzy in places where lawn laps over. We need to cut and weed along those lines.

We spy winter weeds that germinated in fall. They wait through winter to bloom, set seed and spread to be a problem before most gardeners ever venture out in spring. We need to pull these now to avoid dealing with two dozen by May 1.

“There’s time,” we say, “it’s only March.” But we are deceiving ourselves, an amazing thing given so many years of experience. Do as we try to do – garden now like there is not a day to spare.

Here and there, weeds peak out from thinly mulched areas or near the crown of a perennial. While admiring the black lilyturf (Ophiopogon p. ‘Nigrescens’) and golden feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium ‘Aureum’) we take note of some bittercress, a winter weed species (arrows).

Here and there, weeds peak out from thinly mulched areas or near the crown of a perennial. While admiring the black lilyturf (Ophiopogon p. ‘Nigrescens’) and golden feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium ‘Aureum’) we take note of some bittercress, a winter weed species (arrows).

April showers…

That’s because all those nubbins are just waiting for a rain. One good rain. All the cells in their spring shoots are already formed and wait now for water to pump each cell to 100x size. It will be glorious, true, but it will also seriously complicate every gardening move.

Right now we should celebrate that we can walk freely in the beds to cut down last year’s perennial stems that could hide or detract from the next wave of bulb flowers. We should be thinking, "What joy, to be able to reach into the base of that hydrangea and cut the stems all the way down without ruining the daffs all around it." And "Great, I can get close enough to see what I'm doing at the very bottom of that rose."

We made it a priority to cut down this snowball hydrangea now – no worries, it still blooms. Our urgency? As soon as tomorrow the daffodils at its feet will be twice as tall and three times as hard to work around as we clip the hydrangea stems all the way down without cutting bulb foliage, too.

We made it a priority to cut down this snowball hydrangea now – no worries, it still blooms. Our urgency? As soon as tomorrow the daffodils at its feet will be twice as tall and three times as hard to work around as we clip the hydrangea stems all the way down without cutting bulb foliage, too.

Cutting down blue mist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum) and butterfly bushes (dwarf variety of Buddleia davidii). We can do our weed crawl, find plenty of space to maneuver as we prune shrubs, cart mulch to far corners and spread a tarp to catch debris, all with little or no damage to the nubbins of emerging plants or the dry soil.

Cutting down blue mist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum) and butterfly bushes (dwarf variety of Buddleia davidii). We can do our weed crawl, find plenty of space to maneuver as we prune shrubs, cart mulch to far corners and spread a tarp to catch debris, all with little or no damage to the nubbins of emerging plants or the dry soil.

Here, Janet’s kneeling on nearby plants to cut a hybrid tea rose down to lowest, strong, outfacing buds. We can do that now but give it one rainy day followed by one warm day and all of those buds and neighboring, miniscule bits of green will jump up like the hydraulic power shoots they are. “Only March” will become, “Oh no, it’s April already!”

Here, Janet’s kneeling on nearby plants to cut a hybrid tea rose down to lowest, strong, outfacing buds. We can do that now but give it one rainy day followed by one warm day and all of those buds and neighboring, miniscule bits of green will jump up like the hydraulic power shoots they are. “Only March” will become, “Oh no, it’s April already!”

Charge!

No wonder our records show that every hour we spend tending a garden in very early spring saves us up to two hours through the year. It's the difference between being able to cart mulch straight into a back corner, compared to picking our way carefully between plants three times to deliver that mulch by bucket. It's the cumulative savings of five minutes per shrub because we can drop cuttings onto a tarp at our feet rather than toss each clipping clear of the bed and then gather them up later. The uprush of spring is the curtain call for quick work.

We’d rather leave old stems in place so the beneficial insects and pollinators that overwintered there have the chance to emerge. Where we can’t do that, such as where neighbors might object (we’re still new in this ‘hood and would rather they learn the beauty first) we make very loose bundles of the cuttings and leave them nearby.

We’d rather leave old stems in place so the beneficial insects and pollinators that overwintered there have the chance to emerge. Where we can’t do that, such as where neighbors might object (we’re still new in this ‘hood and would rather they learn the beauty first) we make very loose bundles of the cuttings and leave them nearby.

It looks bare but even we can forget that in just weeks this ground will be covered by blue mist flower (A), pearly everlasting (B), lupine (C), butterfly bush (D), veronica (E), butterfly milkweed (F), blue flag (G), sedum(H), pussytoes (I), and bulb foliage, too. Then every move we need to make will take more time as we tender-foot it around all that greenery.

It looks bare but even we can forget that in just weeks this ground will be covered by blue mist flower (A), pearly everlasting (B), lupine (C), butterfly bush (D), veronica (E), butterfly milkweed (F), blue flag (G), sedum(H), pussytoes (I), and bulb foliage, too. Then every move we need to make will take more time as we tender-foot it around all that greenery.

P.S. Is it okay to walk in the beds?

If the soil is friable, you can walk on it and dig in it without damaging its structure. Take up a handful and squeeze your hand around it. Open your hand and give the compressed soil a poke. If it crumbles pretty readily, all is good. If it has so much moisture in it that it stays in a clod, then you should not walk on it unless you spread your weight on boards or snowshoes.

People ask, “Is it okay to cut ______________?” Almost without exception, yes it is. The evergreen nature of some perennials throws people. They rarely worry about the straw from last year’s hybrid coreopsis (B) but worry about the evergreen sage (A; see it cut, below) and the nearly-evergreen groundcover Sedum kamschaticum (C, can be cut).

People ask, “Is it okay to cut ______________?” Almost without exception, yes it is. The evergreen nature of some perennials throws people. They rarely worry about the straw from last year’s hybrid coreopsis (B) but worry about the evergreen sage (A; see it cut, below) and the nearly-evergreen groundcover Sedum kamschaticum (C, can be cut).

The easiest treatment is to leave a perennial alone when it’s new to you. Watch to see what it does on its own, then decide if you want to cut it in subsequent years. This enchanting Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’ is new to us. We hope it will thrive. , we do not know what to expect in spring. Will the stems that survived winter, bloom?

The easiest treatment is to leave a perennial alone when it’s new to you. Watch to see what it does on its own, then decide if you want to cut it in subsequent years. This enchanting Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’ is new to us. We hope it will thrive. , we do not know what to expect in spring. Will the stems that survived winter, bloom?

Will the euphorbia’s show be worth the time needed to clip out the distracting damaged stems? We’ll wait, hands off, and see!

Will the euphorbia’s show be worth the time needed to clip out the distracting damaged stems? We’ll wait, hands off, and see!

We cut perennial cooking sage and other evergreen subshrubs such as lavender to keep them healthy in our not-Mediterranean climate. Here is Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’, pretty as can be after winter. All of it is a single year’s growth.

We cut perennial cooking sage and other evergreen subshrubs such as lavender to keep them healthy in our not-Mediterranean climate. Here is Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’, pretty as can be after winter. All of it is a single year’s growth.

Here’s that sage after Janet’s cut. All of last year’s growth, now heaped to the right to be saved for drying, came quickly from buds at the base after its cut a year ago. The plant will produce that much and more this year.

Here’s that sage after Janet’s cut. All of last year’s growth, now heaped to the right to be saved for drying, came quickly from buds at the base after its cut a year ago. The plant will produce that much and more this year.

There are many buds ready to grow, like A, here. This year we left a few lax lower branches (B) and covered them with soil so they will develop ther own roots. Then we’ll separate them from the mother plant and plant them elsewhere.

There are many buds ready to grow, like A, here. This year we left a few lax lower branches (B) and covered them with soil so they will develop ther own roots. Then we’ll separate them from the mother plant and plant them elsewhere.

Some cuts we learn to make for plant health. Last year’s hellebore leaves are often tattered by spring. They will be shed by the plant but unless removed the damaged tissue provides a foothold for fungi that can migrate to the crown and weaken the plant.

Some cuts we learn to make for plant health. Last year’s hellebore leaves are often tattered by spring. They will be shed by the plant but unless removed the damaged tissue provides a foothold for fungi that can migrate to the crown and weaken the plant.

Some hellebores seem to come through winter with almost no damage (arrows). Genes and location contribute to the plant’s condition. Protected spaces under deciduous trees and moist, rich well drained soil are best.

Some hellebores seem to come through winter with almost no damage (arrows). Genes and location contribute to the plant’s condition. Protected spaces under deciduous trees and moist, rich well drained soil are best.

Others are less able to pull through unscathed. What we cut off, we remove from the garden to reduce the likelihood of spreading what we know is a problem for these beauties.

Others are less able to pull through unscathed. What we cut off, we remove from the garden to reduce the likelihood of spreading what we know is a problem for these beauties.

P.S. #2: Is it okay to transplant now? Or plant out what comes in the mail?

Yes. What is growing in the garden is fully hardened.

And yes if the new plant is dormant – its growth buds still closed. Dormant mail order plants are only recently out of cold storage.

If you hesitate to plant or transplant because of possible frost damage (of course that would have been a risk to a transplant in its original location, too, you know!) you can set one of your loose bundles of clippings over the plant each night until the weather settles.

Those loose bundles of cuttings are good temporary frost shelters for plants you are concerned about.

Those loose bundles of cuttings are good temporary frost shelters for plants you are concerned about.