The outdoor gardening season is finally coming for those of us in the Chicago area. March weather is iffy here, but there are things you can do now to prepare your garden, and get yourself energized for another season. Here is a short list of To-Dos for March and April:
Cut back ornamental grasses now or when you see new growth. Leaving up grasses adds winter interest and may help protect the plant during this season. But it is time to let air and light in to the new shoots that will be coming up. Be careful not to cut any new growth in the process. The dried grasses can be cut in to 10-12 inch strips and left out in your yard for birds. They are starting to build their nests now so the easily accessible materials will be appreciated.
Trees and shrubs that do not bloom in spring can be pruned now. Remove dead, broken, or crossed branches, and shape as needed. It is easier to see the branches and the shape before the plants leaf out. Spring bloomers form buds on old wood, meaning last year's branches. You may see their buds already. (e.g., forsythia). Cutting these now will cut off the future flowers. Prune them after blooming.
Some plants with shallow crowns, like heuchera, can heave out of the ground over winter if we have frost and thaw cycles. Take a look in your garden for this, and gently press any such plants in to the ground. You want the roots protected, especially since we may well have more snow.
Keep in mind that the soil is wet now and walking on it is not advised. It compacts the soil which makes it harder for roots to spread and nutrients to be taken up. As much as possible, avoid walking in your garden unless you have paths or stones.
Clear away fallen leaves or leaf mulch covering plants over the winter. Wet leaf debris can harbor pests and disease. Pull mulch back from perennial plant crowns as weather warms.
Now is the time to address your roses. When the forsythia blooms, uncover rose bushes if they have been mounded up with mulch or soil for winter protection. Spring is the best time for pruning roses before the leaf buds open. Maximum energy will be put in to new growth. Cut out broken or darkened canes and dead tips.
This is a good time to plant, divide, or move perennials. The weather and soil have warmed some, making for a more hospitable environment. Also, less top growth on your existing plants makes them easier to work with and less likely to be damaged when moving or dividing them. Be sure to water new or transplanted perennials in well, and keep a keen eye on their watering needs to help them adjust to their new home.
Last year's organic mulch can be worked in to the soil to break down further. Wood chips should not be worked in because they rob your soil of much needed nitrogen. When you have completed your planting, apply fresh mulch around the plants. Do not put it up against stems and trunks though or pests and disease could be a problem.
Now sit back and enjoy your efforts and your freshly manicured garden!