As every homeowner knows, spring waits for no one. Procrastinate your mulching or planting for one too many warm weekends, and the once-barren winter landscape changes to a thicket of fresh foliage.
“Always work a season ahead,” advises horticulturist Gail Read, who has spent decades tending the public gardens at Blithewold Mansion in Bristol, Rhode Island. “The prep work done in spring sets us up for a successful summer.”
Dig in and clear away dried leaves, prune out winter damage, and bring in fresh compost and plants, ideally before weed seeds catch on that there’s bare ground to spare. Acting early is the difference between enjoying the seasonal rituals of planting, weeding, and deadheading—and falling behind and making the whole thing feel like drudgery.
Do a walk-through of your yard and look carefully at the plantings. Check on last year’s transplants and pinpoint problem areas.
If you’re unsure whether a tree or shrub survived the winter, gently scrape away a little outer bark with your thumbnail to reveal a layer of either green (live tissue) or brown (dead wood). Keep an eye out for places that seem especially soggy. Spring rains can help flag poorly draining soil, perhaps explaining why areas of turfgrass and shallow-rooted plants such as rhododendrons aren’t thriving.
Making the time for such observations can go a long way toward taking the mystery out of growing a healthy lawn and garden, and can give you an edge when it comes to troubleshooting through the season—as will the advice in this guide.
Prep Soil for Greener Lawn and More Flowers
- If you really want healthy plants, reach for a high-quality compost over commercial plant food. At Blithewold, Read always keeps a ready supply for mixing into planting holes and top-dressing.
- Scratching in a 1-inch layer—keeping 6 inches away from the crowns of plants—is enough to reap compost’s many benefits, including healthier soil biology and better water retention. “The process doesn’t happen overnight,” Read says. “But adding compost builds up the soil, little by little.”
- Its advantages apply to turf, too. Pelletized organic compost, applied roughly 40 pounds per 1,000 square feet, makes a good alternative to granular fertilizer, especially where organic matter is lacking. Alec McClennan, founder of Cleveland-based Good Nature Organic Lawn Care, also suggests a spring application of liquid aeration, such as Aerify Plus or Biological Dethatcher, for battling soil compaction.
- Remember, working wet soil compacts it, so avoid tromping or digging until the ground dries out.
Clean Up and Trim Back for Healthier Plants
Timing is everything. Wait to shape plants that bloom on new growth—such as lilacs and mophead hydrangeas—until just after they’ve bloomed; otherwise you risk snipping off flower buds.
- Prune soft-stemmed herbaceous perennials to a few inches above ground level and rake away dead foliage, fallen branches, and leaf litter, which can harbor overwintering fungal diseases and pests.
- Remove all damaged and diseased branches on woody shrubs, as well as any crossing branches, keeping in mind that you should avoid pruning more than a third of any plant in a single growing season.
- Consider leaving an area undisturbed for a few weeks of 70°F weather, giving beneficial insects like praying mantises time to hatch, and hibernating pollinators and ladybugs a chance to stir.
Make a Better First Impression
Just as an updated front door instantly boosts curb appeal, so can a new garden gate dress up a yard. A fresh coat of paint might be all yours needs to welcome visitors in style. Or consider replacing your gate with (or adding for the first time) one that’s set in an arbor, enlivened by fragrant flowering vines.
Crowd Out Weeds—or Catch Them Early
To beat weeds, Seattle-area designer Robin Haglund takes cues from nature, where, she points out, “you never find bare soil.” Following suit, she plants garden beds thickly, mulches generously with 2 to 3 inches of arborist chips until groundcovers fill in, and pulls weeds before they self-sow. She also warns against tilling, which, she says, “interrupts the natural cycle of soil building, and stirs up weed seeds.”
As for the lawn, “keep it thick and mow it tall,” says McClennan. He recommends an early-season application of nitrogen-rich corn gluten, a natural pre-emergent weed preventer, and advises against cutting more than a third off your turf at one time—cool-season grasses shade out weeds best when kept at least 3½ to 4½ inches tall.
A stand-up weeder lessens back strain. This hoe’s wide, narrow blade easily removes small surface weeds from moist soil. Standard collinear hoe with a 7-inch blade, $50; Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Extend Peak Bloom the Easy Way
Designing a standout perennial border that blooms all season takes practice, plus deadheading to keep it going. Get a similar effect—without the upkeep—with a shrub-based design heavily reliant on ornamental grasses and flowering goodies.
Korean spice viburnum, oakleaf hydrangea, ninebark, and seven-son flower are all easy-care shrubs with three-season interest that stand tall at the back of a border; lower growers of equal merit include ‘Longwood Blue’ Bluebeard, ‘Ogon’ spirea, and tender salvias. For grasses, mix in silvery ‘Morning Light’ miscanthus, tall ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass, or groundcovers of carex. These strong performers need just one off-season pruning.
Wean Off Chemical-Dependent Lawn
Nitrogen-fixing clover makes a good companion for turf—if you can stop seeing it as a weed. And now Microclover is making that easier to do. This dainty version boasts smaller leaves and fewer flowers, while still pulling nitrogen from the air into the ground. It’s available as a sod mix (Sodco) or seed (Seed Ranch).
To overseed in early spring, broadcast 1 to 3 pounds of the tiny coated seeds for every 1,000 square feet of established lawn. It’s quick to take hold and, depending on your turf variety, may eliminate the need for fertilizer altogether.
Support Floppy Plants Before they Wilt
When it comes to staking, Read says, “the first rule is to do it before plants need it, and the second is to stake so you can’t see it.” Place grow-through supports in early spring, when peonies, salvias, and similar perennials are a foot tall.
A technique called “pinching” can eliminate the need to stake at all. For summer and fall bloomers like New England asters, phlox, cosmos, and monarda, Read cuts them back by a third in mid-May to encourage more flowers and stronger, shorter stems.
Skip Sun-Scorched Containers
When you think about the perks of drip-irrigating container plantings—from the time saved hand watering to the money saved replacing the plants you forgot to water—it’s surprising everyone doesn’t do it.
To eliminate the guesswork of buying parts, consider getting a starter kit marketed for containers at the nursery or home center, and pick up a digital faucet timer so you can automate daily waterings.
Drip tubing is least visible when run up through the drainage holes of containers, so hold off potting up your spring designs until you’ve gathered the right irrigation supplies. You’ll need one dripper for 10- to 12-inch-diameter pots, two drippers for ones measuring 14 to 20 inches, and at least three drippers for containers spanning more than 24 inches.
Finding the right timer setting takes trial and error, but in general, you’ll want to water planters for 45 to 60 minutes every day. Regularly monitor soil moisture, and adjust the length of your waterings as temperatures rise in summer and cool down in fall.
Make Deadheading Easier
Not only are mass plantings more aesthetically pleasing, but they can also be easier to maintain—giving you the option of quickly deadheading planted groupings with hedge shears.
“I use them for almost everything—heliopsis, echinacea, veronicas, rudbeckias, boltonias, anything I grow en masse,” says garden designer Tracy DiSabato-Aust, referring to her razor-sharp, Japanese-made
Okatsune shears (shown). You can also scale back deadheading with plant selection. For Haglund, that means growing perennials with seed heads—including nigella, goldenrod, wild roses, and coneflowers—that she leaves through winter, offering texture to the landscape and food for birds.
Get a Flowery, Full Look for Cheap
No need to spend a fortune on bedding plants. In the Blithewold gardens, Read grows tulips in these planting gaps, then swaps in summer-blooming annuals. To get the most plants at the best price, start sun-loving “cut-and-come-again” annuals such as these from seed.
Design a Stimulating Outdoor Space
To take your patio or deck to the next level, really home in on all five senses. Comfortable seating and a pretty setting are a given. But what about sound, fragrance, something to snack on? When designing outdoor spaces, Haglund emphasizes grazeable edibles—berry-filled patio pots are a favorite—and plants with fragrance, such as lavender, ‘David’ phlox, and apricot-scented ‘Gilt Edge’ silverberry.
In suburban settings, it’s important to include elements that distract from the noise, she says, like a simple water feature or plants that attract songbirds.
Embrace your Shade
Where sun-loving lawn won’t grow, plenty of shade plants will. When choosing a palette, Haglund suggests seeking out “whites, silvers, and golds,” which, she says, “all seem to glow in shade.”
For a no-fail combo, try a grouping of ‘Little Honey’ oakleaf hydrangea, white-flowering bleeding heart, and blue hostas, edged with variegated ‘Jack Frost’ brunnera (above). Add a comfy bench, and come summer’s heat, that shady spot might just become your new favorite retreat.
Give high-traffic zones extra TLC
If kids and pets won’t quit cutting through the yard, take the hint: You need a path. Flagstone stepping-stones become a landscape feature when surrounded by lush green turf. Laid among tough groundcovers, such as Scotch moss, blue star creeper, or ‘Chocolate Chip’ ajuga, they provide an easy option for an impromptu passage through planting beds.
And they offer something extra, too, drawing the eye deeper into the landscape, and enticing you to explore what’s just out of view.