Spring: The Season of New Beginnings & Garden Clean-Up

Photo © Funky Dooby

Can you smell that? The fresh, warm, humid air blowing in. Can you hear that? The morning birds and frogs singing their spring chorus? It’s almost here…SPRING! And if you are anything like us at Habitat Network we are itching to get outside into our yards and gardens.

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Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Devan King)

With spring comes spring cleaning. Remember, we were lazy last fall and left all the materials and resources we could to help wildlife survive the cold winter. But, now we are excited to get out, assess the situation, get our hands dirty, and maximize our gardens’ success this year. Here are some ecological quick tips and other actions you can do in the spring to continue to protect wildlife and prepare for the growing season ahead.

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Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Devan King)

Watch where you step. It’s important to make sure that the work you are doing during your spring cleaning isn’t compacting the soil. It’s best to wait until the soil is dry before walking in your garden.This prevents soil compaction that can make it difficult for plants to grow. A good test of soil moisture is to take a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball. Drop the ball from waist height. If the ball remains, the soil is too moist, if the ball breaks apart it is probably dry enough to walk in the garden.

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Photo © Megan Whatton

To prepare for new growth, it’s time to take care of the old. We left the seed heads, dead stems, and leaves in the fall for wildlife to use for shelter and resources, and now it is time to remove some of these materials to make way for new growth. Annual plant material (sunflowers, or grasses) is generally fair game to be removed from the garden–it isn’t a source of energy for the plants, and once it warms, the insects overwintering there will have emerged and moved on. Many perennials have top growth that will die back to the ground in the winter, so once you start to see new growth at the base, you can start trimming last years stems back to the ground. If you are tidying up before the temperature has consistently reached 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) here may still be important insect larvae using these resources so placing them in a brush pile, preferably in the sun somewhere, for a couple more weeks can allow them the time they need to develop.

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Photo © eileenmak

Spring cleaning yard waste is a great resource to start, or add, to your compost. Composting might seem daunting, but truly it isn’t, and in the end you are left with, what gardeners refer to as, black gold, which can be used in future soil mending. You need both sources of carbon (dry brown materials such as leaves or plant debri) and nitrogen (such as food scraps and green clippings) for a successful compost. A good “rule of thumb” is one part green to ten parts brown but if you are interested in learning more about composting watch Lee Reich’s Compost Happens helpful video.

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Photo © United Soybean Board

I don’t know about your garden, but some of the first green I see in the late winter/early spring are weeds. It’s important to keep the weeds under control so the plants you want aren’t fighting for resources like water and sunlight. If you can identify the weeds as they emerge, go ahead and remove them. If you are starting a new bed, spreading a thick layer of wood chips or mulch may help reduce the time spent weeding in the future.

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Photo © Alachua County

While you are down on the ground weeding, it is also advised to pull back any mulch that has accumulated during the winter months around the base of the plant. Leave last year’s mulch. It will eventually decompose and add soil nutrients.

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Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Devan King)

Your tools can make or break your gardening mojo, so tending to them before you break them in for the season can save you some time. First, if you haven’t already, clean off any remaining dirt and debris from the tools. Sharpen cutting tools with a file until you see “new” shiny metal along the cutting edge. Remove any additional rust on tools with a wire brush. And finally, to prevent future rust, oil your tools with mineral oil or penetrating oil, like WD-40 to help keep your tools “like new” and ready to take on the growing season.

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Photo © blickpixel

Trees and shrubs that are mid-to-late summer bloomers should be trimmed or pruned in the late winter or early spring. It is best to wait until after the coldest part of the winter has past, but this type of pruning should result in a burst of new, spring growth. Early spring bloomers shouldn’t be pruned until their flowers fade, later into spring/summer. Check out Arbor Day Foundation for more pruning information.

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Photo © Bob

Early spring is also a great time for you to reacquaint yourself with your property and garden. Mapping your property on Habitat Network will help you record the current state of your yard or garden. Starting a gardening journal, alongside your map, will help you track your plantings plan for rotations and substitutions, and help remind you when and what you planted during the busy season. Because let’s face it, most of us have all planted something and completely forgotten what, or where, it was by the following year.

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Photo © Steve Johnson

For a good portion of the United States, residents needed to empty and store their rain barrels during the harsh winter months so the water didn’t freeze, creating cracks or leaks. So, spring is a good time to assess the number, placement, and need for rain barrels around your property.

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Photo © Shelby L. Bell

The mild weather of spring also allows for dividing, sharing, and transplanting perennials that have overgrown their welcome or are starting to die out in the center. Spring’s cool temperatures and increased rainfall create the perfect conditions to reduce the shock of dividing the plant. Make sure to prep the plant before (water and dig the new hole) and care for it after (treat it like a new plant) to ensure the success of the division and transplant.

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Photo © Megan Whatton

Finally, we all strive to enhance our yards and garden with additional resources for the wildlife around us. Spring is the time to take down your winter bird feeders, and give them a good clean. Cleaning feeders every 1- 2 weeks (more often during warm, wet weather) or removing feeders during the summer is advised to avoid mold and disease transmission for wildlife and humans. Clean and set out your nest boxes by February, if you are located in the south, and by March in northern areas. Set up your birdbath if you stored it for the winter, or remove and store the heater if you kept it going all winter long. If you removed your bee house to protect it from the winter weather, make sure to mount it in the same location and place any cocoons you stored in the bee house after the first flowers have bloomed.

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Photo © Megan Whatton

Spring is an exciting time of year for people in northern climates. Everything turns from brown to green and we start to see and hear more biodiversity again. Make sure you are prepared this spring to provide all the resources our plants and wildlife need in order for you to get the most out of your garden this growing season.