Garden Variety: Get a jump on these early-season gardening tasks

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Warm weekend days across the Midwest coupled with the impending arrival of spring have most gardeners excited to get outside and work in their yards and gardens. There are many tasks that can be done this time of year, some that should wait until later in the spring and a few that can be saved for fall or performed throughout the growing season.

The most important things to do in early spring are to prepare new landscape and garden beds for planting, clean up diseased plant material from previous seasons, plant fruit plants and early season vegetable crops, and remove dead trees before pests emerge from them in the spring. This is also a good time to plant trees, shrubs, perennial flowers and cool-season annual flowers; seed bare spots in the lawn; control weeds; apply a fresh layer of mulch to landscape beds if needed; turn the compost pile; and service lawn and garden equipment.

Bed preparation includes tilling or turning of soil if desired and adding compost or other organic matter. Compost is the best option for improving drainage in heavy clay soils. It also improves air movement in the soil and makes nutrients that are already in the soil more available to plants.

Diseased plant material includes stems and leaves of plants such as tomatoes and irises that had leaf spots last summer or anything similar.

Early-season vegetable crops suitable for planting in March and April are spinach, lettuce, kale, arugula, peas, potatoes, radishes, turnips, cabbage, broccoli and other plants that tolerate cool temperatures and light frosts.

Garden tasks that are best left for later in the spring or early in the summer are pruning shrubs such as roses, cleaning up perennial flowers and ornamental grasses and planting warm-season vegetable crops.

Roses and subshrubs (blue mist spirea, Russian sage, artemisia, etc.) should be pruned after they begin to leaf out in late spring. On these plants, determining what is dead and alive can be difficult until new leaves appear, so waiting ensures that plants are trimmed back to healthy growth. Shrubs that bloom in the summer can be pruned now also. Shrubs that bloom in the spring, such as lilacs, should be pruned after they have finished blooming.

For cleanup of perennial flowers and grasses, simply trim foliage back to the ground if desired. Some foliage, such as that of daylilies, can be left in the garden if it is not diseased and doesn’t bother you. Many gardeners prefer to remove all old foliage simply for aesthetic reasons. Grasses can be trimmed or burned (in accordance with local ordinances) if they are not near a flammable structure.

Vegetable crops that should not be planted until after all chance of frost has passed (typically very late April to early May in the Lawrence area) are tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, melons, sweet potatoes, beans, corn and other heat-loving crops.

Lawn fertilization should be left for fall. The best time to fertilize fescue and bluegrass lawns is September and November. If your lawn is irrigated, application of a slow-release fertilizer in May is acceptable. Spring fertilization of cool-season lawns encourages the grass to put on a lot of top growth without the roots to support it. Then, when summer temperatures and humidity hit, the lush top growth becomes stressed and is more susceptible to disease. Fall fertilization encourages the grass to put more resources into the roots and better withstand heat, drought and pests in future years.

Tree pruning can be done at any time of year. Early spring is best for quickest recovery, but work may be dependent on arborist schedules or performed as needed.

Weed control can also be done at any time. And unfortunately, in most gardens, it is a yearlong task.

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