Less is more with early season yard work
The weather has been lovely, we have spring fever and we can be easily tricked into thinking that maybe we can start digging around those flower beds and see what has survived the winter and if things are starting to sprout. But NO! This is Minnesota, zone 3, and we have April to get through and May can also be very devious. So leave the flower beds as they are and check the produce you have in cold storage to make sure nothing is turning soft or rotting. Remove anything suspect, because these problems quickly spread. Winter squash, onions, cabbage, apples and potatoes all have a finite storage life, especially when temperatures are warmer as they have been this spring. Check your non-hardy summer bulbs, roots, and corms such as dahlias, tuberous begonias, glads, canna and calla lilies, as these also may soften and rot, or shrivel if the temperatures are too high or conditions too dry.
Stay off your grass while it is frozen, muddy or the ground is soft because the soil will become compacted and the tender grass shoots can be easily uprooted and damaged. Once the ground is dried up and seems solid, it can be lightly raked to get rid of debris from the winter. Hard raking will damage the young grass shoots. This is an opportunity to prepare your lawnmower for the upcoming season by changing oil, checking the spark plug(s) and sharpening the blade.
April is a month of gradual beginnings. As the month progresses we can remove tree wrap and protective cover from bulb beds, non-hardy roses and perennials in stages as soil and mulch thaw. Don't be in a rush to uncover tender plants. The mulch helps prevent them from coming out of dormancy too early. As you do uncover plants, keep the mulch close because there will be times when it will become cold and you will need to cover these perennials for the night. Rose canes will be OK as long as temperatures hover around 20 degrees, but most flowering perennials will die back at these temperatures.
Spring care for many perennials is simply trimming the plant down to the ground, however special care needs to be taken for others. Careful cutbacks need to be made with plants such as Bergenia, Coral bells (Heuchera), Epimedium, Hellebore, Pinks (Dianthus) and Sweet Williams. These perennials have evergreen or semi-evergreen foliage and they are still alive and attached to the root system. Before you cut, reach into the clump of plants and gently pull out loose debris so you get a good view of the base of the plant. That way you can be sure you are cutting old stems and not disturbing new shoots. For such tasks it is better to use a household scissor instead of a pruner because the long narrow blades can reach into tight spaces.
Perennials with long trailing stems tend to get packed down under the snow and need some gentle lifting and fluffing to get air in and around the stems. Examples of these are Candytuft, Creeping Sedum, Creeping Speedwell, Spotted Deadnettle, and thyme. Wiggle the tines of a bamboo or springy metal rake, points facing up, under the mat of stems and "fluff" them a little. The key word is gentle so that you do not pull them from their roots. Just lift to clear them from mud and debris. If you need to remove dead leaves that collected on top of the plant, rake them out gently with your fingers.
Plants that like a strong hand on the rake include perennials like Bugleweed, Dalmatian bellflower, Lamb's ear, Lily-of-the-valley, and most decorative grasses. Again use a bamboo or springy metal rake because these are gentler than a rigid garden rake. Simply get in and rake out the debris. You do not need to get everything out, and you do not want to see bald patches. This will let in more light and air to the plants and they will quickly fill in and thrive.
Daffodils, tulips and other early perennials are beginning to show themselves especially on the south side of buildings. They seem to thrive in cool weather and if they become covered and bowed over with snow, they will right themselves as the snow melts. The snow acts as a blanket to protect the foliage from colder air temperatures, and actually warms and encourages the plants growth.
Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.