Henry Homeyer: Early spring chores in the garden

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With sunny warm days upon us, we all want to start gardening. But beware: if you leave footprints in the soil, or feel it go squish, it's not time to be doing anything. Plants get their oxygen from their roots, not their leaves. If you compact the soil, you can seriously harm your plants by damaging soil texture and tilth.

Even your lawn is susceptible to compaction. If you must go across it, don't hurry across it and keep your feet flat, to maximize the surface area of your shoes. And don't follow the same path each time you cross the lawn. Game trails in the forest can be created by animals as small as house cats if they follow the same path each time they go visit the neighbors. Compaction kills plants.

Raking the lawn seems like a good activity now, but again, depending on where you live, your lawn might not be ready for you. Wait until the lawn has "greened up." If you rake a dormant lawn vigorously, it is easy to pull up plants, roots and all.

The plow guys dump a lot of sand and gravel on my lawn. I can clean it up now because I can stand in the road and rake it towards me without compacting the soil. I like to use a lawn rake with bamboo or plastic tines for that job, to be gentler on the lawn. Metal lawn rakes are great, but not at this time of year.

If your lawn feels fairly dry and you don't leave foot prints, perhaps you can get to your flower beds to do a little spring cleanup. I don't generally rake leaves out of my flower beds in the fall, as I like the extra protection against erosion and cold temperatures they provide. But that means that bulb plants are covered now, and the ground is insulated from the spring sun. I want the soil to warm up.

So I try to clean up places where I know there are spring bulbs as early as possible. If the daffodils are poking through, I use my fingers to pull back the leaves. I fear that a rake will damage the tender stems and flower buds.

In other places where bulbs are not up yet, I use a rake and gently rake off the leaves. Sometimes I will bring along a scrap of plywood or a 6-inch plank to stand on as I work, minimizing compaction.

What else can you do? I've been cutting branches from early spring-blooming shrubs. This is one of my favorite spring tasks. I've had forsythia blooming in the house for over a week now. As an early bloomer, it doesn't take long in a vase to get blossoms. Select stems that have fat buds and put them in a sunny window until they open. Then move them to a cooler place to prolong the show.

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Another spring favorite of mine is called February Daphne (Daphne mezereum). I suppose it blooms somewhere in February - Virginia, perhaps. Here it generally blooms for me in late April, but in 2012 it bloomed in late March. The blossoms are bright pink-magenta, and are fragrant. I like it so much that I named my corgi after this shrub.

I've had my February Daphne for 15 years or more and it is still a nice compact shrub about 4 feet tall and wide. It is originally from Japan, and I watched it closely when I first got it, as I was worried it might be invasive. I had seen it growing wild on the roadside, so worried it might take over the understory. Nope. I have never seen a single offspring elsewhere on my land.

Pussy willows are opening in the swamps, and I shall go out with my "cut-and-hold" pole pruner to get some soon. This pruner cuts through a stem, and grabs it at the same time.

That is particularly nice when gathering branches in a swamp. The one I have is made by the Wildflower Seed and Tool Company of Napa Valley (https://wildflower-seed.com/). It is telescoping and has a pistol grip that I can work with one hand, while directing the pole with the other.

If you don't have any pussy willows, you should — especially if you have an area that stays wet or damp most of the year. They are very easy to propagate, particularly in the spring before they leaf out. Just cut 12-inch long stems and push most of each stem into the soil. It will send out roots in the ground and leaves above ground.

If the pussy willows you cut are for display in a vase, you don't need to add water to the vase. They will stay "frozen in time" seemingly forever. If they haven't fully opened, put them in water until they are cute and fuzzy, then drain the water.

I recently picked a stem of hobblebush, a native viburnum (V. lantanoides), and put it in a vase where it is blooming beautifully. All viburnums would probably force well. Lilacs are early, but I've never found them as dramatic when forced as when I let them develop on the bush.

Last spring chore? Clean out your garden shed or barn. Throw away garden gloves with holes in them. Get some steel wool and light sewing machine oil or WD-40, and get the rust off your tools. Sharpen shovels and pruners. Summer will be along soon enough. Enjoy the spring before the bugs come along.

Henry Homeyer can be reached at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Please include a SASE if asking for a reply my mail. Henry is the author of 4 gardening books.


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