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Prune, Sow and Compost - Spring is Almost Here!

A small brown bird is perched on the bare branches of a tree with a blue sky behind it.
We're beginning to wake up to the sounds of birds chirping again - spring is only weeks away! (Photo: Flickr)

This should be the time of year when fruit trees are pruned, and shrub, hybrid T, and other bush roses are pruned. Instead, I am clearing the debris from the ice storms we have endured of late. I have tiptoed through the emerging daffodils as I carefully removed fallen pine branches. Next I will replace the ragged branch breaks with properly pruned cuts so the tree can seal the new wound from the most recent ice storm. The combination of warming days and cold nights is perfect weather for tree sap to flow from the roots up into the branches, causing the tree buds to swell. Soon the early spring-blooming Red Maples will be in bloom, along with Elm trees - both trees bloom before their leaves come out.

This is the perfect time to start thinking spring and get a jump on the season by sowing seeds indoors. Hold back on sowing tomato seeds to avoid having vines growing over the window sill before the soil is warm enough to plant them in the garden. Outside, it is time to prepare the garden bed by spreading just a ¼ inch of compost onto the soil. Don’t disrupt the soil food web by tilling this in; instead incorporate the compost as the soil is gently worked for the sowing of pea, mustard, collard, kale, radish and other early-sown seeds. Come mid-March, the cole crops will need to be planted. Unlike tomatoes, vegetables like eggplants, squash and peppers thrive in cool soil and air temperatures.

Don’t omit the flower border when spreading that ¼ inch of compost. While doing so, think of the millions of microbes enriching the garden soil. Speaking of a gardening boost, I typically feed the pansy plants with half strength liquid fertilizer around now to encourage them to get growing.

As perennial plants begin to grow, I cut back the previous year’s dead growth. When doing so, I keep an eye out for insect egg cases on the old growth. I cut the section of stem with the egg case attached and tuck into nearby plants. I don’t want any praying mantis egg cases on the compost pile because these beneficial insects feed on aphids.

During the past few weeks at Maymont, we have been removing the water sprouts growing on the Star Magnolia branches, Styrax and dogwood branches. Water sprouts grow vertically from branches and should be removed regularly. These upright branches are easy to spy when the trees are leafless and should be pruned off at the branch or trunk. Suckers are the vertical branches that grow directly from roots, and they should be removed as well. Remember to use sharp, sterilized cutting tools and to cut at an angle leaving ¼ inch stub - no flush cuts please! It is easy to over prune, so plan ahead so you follow the rule to not remove more than ¼ of the overall shrub or tree in a season. Walk away when that ¼ limit has been reached. Over pruning will stimulate excessive growth - the opposite of the desired goal.

As the days get longer and the sun gets warmer, the world awakens both outside and in. During the next few weeks I will examine my tropical houseplants. I will replant pot-bound plants into larger pots, I will groom the plants by removing dead leaves, and then clean them off. I do so by giving them a shower, wipe down the leaves,  or use a soft brush to remove the dust from the past few months. Finally, I will fertilize them with a product appropriate for the plant, following the directions on the label. I will not set those I am overwintering outside because it is still too cold.

Spring is here!