Is it safe yet? Can I really start inching my way to the garden shed in anticipation of spring? A few inches of snow on the ground won’t stop me. A foot?  Nahhhhhh. Spring fever has a way of distorting reality.

If like many gardeners, you are scared about what might have happened to the gardens after a long winter, do what I do. Take a deep breath and march boldly out to your garden and face it like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz – before he gets a heart.  You might be pleasantly surprised to find the damage is not as bad as expected. It’s sort of like when my teenage son called me from school the other day to tell me he was in the principal’s office.  I took a DEEP BREATH, braced myself, and asked why. Much to my delight, it involved helping out with a special community servce program.  EXHALE. Even as I write this blog, I think I can see the tips of my Lenten Rose making their way through the warming soil, despite the challenge of a soccer ball sitting on top of it from my son’s misplaced kick last fall.

Turning to something more uplifting, let’s continue with my spring to-do list in the garden.

Cut back the following perennials in early April: Lavender, Montauk Daisy, Russian Sage, Hypericum and Mums.

pH isn’t phooey. I used to think pH was only something that Master Gardeners, professional landscapers or chemists had to be concerned with. To explain, I will use the KISS approach (Keep It Simple, Silly). pH affects a plant’s ability to take up nutrients from the soil. If your soil’s pH is not in the optimum range, then your plants can become anemic, weakened, prone to disease and stunted in growth. Allow me to use my son’s love of macaroni and cheese as an illustration. I could put a huge bowl of that awful, fluorescent orange, boxed macaroni and cheese (his favorite) in front of him and tie his hands behind his back so he couldn’t (theoretically) get it into his mouth. All of that ‘good stuff’ is right there next to him but he is unable to partake. Same thing with nutrients and your plants’ roots. You could put a lot of sweat equity into working organic amendments into your soil and if the pH is off, you are not seeing the results of your hard work. And if like many, you try to make up for the garden’s lackluster appearance with fertilizer, you would just be wasting money as the fertilizer also bypasses the roots.

Soil pH is measured on a scale from 1-14. Seven is considered neutral. Anything above 7 is alkaline (also referred to as basic or sweet). Anything lower than 7 is acidic. Most perennials, annuals, bulbs, shrubs and trees prefer to be in the 6.0 – 7.0 range. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, as my teenage son reminds me. Acid loving shrubs like Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Mountain Laurels, blue Hydrangeas, Blueberry bushes, and Japanese Andromeda prefer a pH between 5.0 – 5.5. Swinging to the other side of neutral are Lilacs, pink Hydrangeas, Clematis, Dianthus, Delphinium, Lavender and Lenten Roses. These enjoy 7.0 – 7.5. If you choose to do you own pH test, follow the kit’s instructions carefully. Some require the sample to be moist, others dry. There are also pH soil probes available. You simply put the probe in the soil and read the meter.  Or you can take your sample to a regional Cooperative Extension office or soil testing lab.

Prune many summer and fall flowering shrubs in late winter or early spring before they set flower buds. At this time the plant is still ‘asleep’; it doesn’t even see you coming. But before you race out with your hand pruners or loppers, understand that there is a common misconception that all shrubs must be pruned every year, as if this is a golden rule. Not. Just because you plant a flowering shrub doesn’t mean the pruners must come.  Reasons for pruning include:

  • To remove dead, damaged or diseased wood.
  • To maintain a shrub’s size and proportion. Don’t try to manipulate a larger shrub into a smaller space by severe pruning. It’s better to buy a shrub that matures to, or close to, the size you ultimately want.
  • To promote a healthy, more vigorous shrub by thinning out older wood and allowing younger wood to replace it. This typically encourages more blooms since the plant’s energy is channeled to fresh blooms instead of supporting older wood.
  • To rejuvenate older shrubs and bring them back to a healthy state.
  • To remove branches on shrubs that bloom on old new wood while the plant is still dormant. This way it doesn’t waste energy directing food to limbs that will be cut off.


If a summer or fall flowering shrub fits one or more of the above criteria, then have at it.  Shrubs falling into this group include Rose of Sharon, Panicle Hydrangeas (H. paniculata), Spirea, Potentilla, Blue Mist Shrub, Butterfly Bush, Summersweet and Bush Clover.

Kerry Ann Mendez is a lecturer, designer, writer, consultant, and the owner of Perennially Yours, a business specializing in low-maintenance perennial gardening and landscaping. Mendez also published two top-selling gardening books: The Ultimate Flower Gardener’s Top Ten Lists: 70 Garden-Transforming Lists, Money Saving Shortcuts, Design Tips & Smart Plant Picks for Zones 3 Through 7and Top Ten Lists for Beautiful Shade Gardens: Seeing Your Way Out of the Dark: 52 Garden-Transforming Lists, Money-Saving Shortcuts, Design Tips & Smart Plant Picks for Zones 3 Through 7

by Kerry Mendez

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