This post by Brian Barth originally appeared on Modern Farmer.
The weather is wild and wooly in early March, on the cusp of spring — sunny and 70 degrees one week and a chance of snow the next. The plants can’t quite figure out whether to break from their winter slumber, and those that do are often punished with a late freeze.
In a few weeks, you may find yourself in a similar boat, itching to get outside and start planting. But it’s best to wait until spring has made its full arrival before plunking tender seedlings in the ground. That doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to do in the garden, though. Here’s how to take advantage of the late winter window to get your garden in order for an even more glorious spring.
TLC for Your Tools
When the ground’s still frozen or too soggy to mess with, take stock of your tools and equipment, and take care of any maintenance that’s needed.
Take gas-powered equipment in for a tune-up: Sharpen mower blades, change spark plugs, drain and replace fuel, top off the oil, and check to make sure everything still works as it should
Sharpen and oil pruning equipment: Sand off any rust using steel wool, use a sharpening stone to restore a sharp edge to the blades, and coat the blades and moving parts with a light penetrating oil. (A local hardware store will often offer these services if you’re not up for the task.)
Repair and restore digging tools: Break the handle on a shovel or digging fork last year? If it’s a good quality tool, it’s worth buying a new handle and replacing it rather than tossing the whole thing in the landfill. Some gardeners go so far as to sharpen the digging blade of their shovels with a coarse file each year, but at the very least it’s nice to wash off any accumulated dirt, dry down the blade, and spray it with penetrating oil to ward off rust.
Style the Yard
Winter has a way of leaving the yard looking like a bomb went off — sticks and debris scattered about and tattered, half-dead vegetation everywhere — so it’s high time for a bit of grooming to give the spring display of flowers the best possible backdrop.
Rake and restore: Collect leaf litter and add it to your compost pile or stash to use as mulch when the summer heat hits; bag up sticks and run them through a chipper (if you have access to one) to make mulch, or put them on the curb for municipal pick up; rake up old mulch from your beds and add it to the compost pile; spread a ½-inch layer of finished compost over the bare soil to replace lost nutrients.
Primp and prune: Pull out fall annuals that died over the winter and toss them in the compost pile; unwrap burlap coverings from evergreen shrubs and trim off and winter dieback (i.e. leaves and branches that have turned brown); any perennials and ornamental grasses that weren’t cut back in fall should be chopped down to about 4 inches tall to prepare for new growth; saw off broken branches back to the larger branch they’re attached to, leaving a smooth cut rather than a little stub; prune ornamental trees, shrubs, and vines to remove dead wood, control their size and to enhance flowering and overall appearance; if you didn’t get to it over the winter, now is the last chance to prune fruit trees, grapevines and other food plants.
Extra touches: Sculpt your flower beds with an edging tool to maintain clean, crisp lines and keep lawn grass from invading; divide clumping perennials (things that grow from bulbs, tubers, corms, and rhizomes — dahlias, hostas, lilies, and comfrey are but a few examples) to give the roots more space to grow and use the divisions to fill in bare areas in the yard; cut branches of early spring blooms (forsythia, redbud, magnolia, etc) and “force” them in a vase indoors for a late winter flower arrangement.
Veggie Bed Prep
Once the soil in your vegetable garden is dry enough to not squish when you step on it, it’s time to start laying the groundwork for spring planting.
Clean out: Remove any leftover veggies that didn’t survive the winter and toss them into the compost pile; pull out drip irrigation tubes to make way for tilling and planting; if you planted cover crops in the fall, mow them to the ground and then let the stems dry out for a couple weeks before tilling in the debris; if you mulched your beds in fall, rake off the mulch and add it to the compost pile.
Top up the fertility: Spread a fresh layer of compost on your beds — 1 to 2 inches is ideal — and till it in; add supplementary nutrients like lime (for acidic soils), sulfur (for basic soils), bone meal (for phosphorus), greensand (for potassium), and kelp meal (for micronutrients); till in the compost and amendments, but only once the soil is dry enough to crumble when you grab a handful—then rake the beds into smooth, ready-to-plant mounds; consider getting a soil test to fine tune your fertility management strategy