Seasonal Garden Care
“To every thing there is a season…” Ecclesiastes
Garden care is a year-round activity, its rhythms dictated by seasonal conditions and local climates. April showers may bring spring flowers in temperate zones, late frosts and snow may continue at higher elevations while harvests of greens, peas and other vegetables may be well under way in the coastal south. Wherever you live, garden care is required throughout the year to a varying degree. The kind of attention and level of intensity depend on your growing zone and location. Whether you are mulching, fertilizing, planting or harvesting, there is work to be done all spring, summer, fall and winter. A little planning and consideration to the longevity and health of your plants and soil will give you an enviable yard and garden to be enjoyed year round.
Spring may come shortly after the New Year to coastal California and the South, not until May and June in the higher elevations of the West. You know when it reaches your area; the days begin to warm and nights hover above freezing, trees and shrubs swell with buds, lawns green in the first rains. Start a garden journal that records last frosts and other weather conditions, planting dates and germination times; any and all information that will be useful to future gardening seasons.
Now’s the time to aerate the lawn and apply a slow-release lawn fertilizer (if you didn’t in the fall) such as alfalfa meal, soybean meal or corn-gluten meal. Broadcasting compost — if you have a ready supply — is also wise. Continue to fertilize every 6-8 weeks until autumn. Before fertilizing, rake any debris that mucked up the lawn over the winter and seed bare areas. If you are concerned about weeds, apply corn gluten meal to control dandelions, crab grass and other invasive plants. (Corn gluten prevents seed germination, so only apply to areas where you aren’t planning on seeding or after seeds have germinated.)
Divide and plant fall-blooming perennials as soon as the plant’s growing tips emerge. Water the plants well for a day or two before you plan to divide them. Prepare the soil and dig a hole in their new home before excavating the plants. Dig deeply on all sides of the plant, 4-6 inches away from outermost branches and lift the plant out of the soil. Shake the loose soil off the plant’s roots and divide. Place the plant in its new space, fill with soil and water well.
Prune summer and fall blooming trees and shrubs to get rid of diseased wood and encourage growth. Pruning will also improve the aesthetics of your plants. A list of trees to prune in spring can be found here.
Feed trees and shrubs with an organic fertilizer (cottonseed meal, bone meal or aged manure) to give them a jump-start on the growing season. Continue to feed every 2-3 months throughout the growing season. As soon as the ground thaws, deeply water trees and shrubs.
Plow under any cover crops you planted in the fall. Turn over the soil in your garden if necessary and add organic compost. If your soil is in pretty good shape, just add compost to the top. Wait a week or two before planting.
Plan to rotate your crops — planting them in different parts of the garden– from the year before. By growing groups of vegetables in different places each year you can improve your soil fertility and reduce the risk of disease and insect problems. You may need to do a little research to discover which plants are in the same group and make similar demands on your soil. Greens thrive on nitrogen, beans and other legumes bring nitrogen back to the soil. Peppers, tomatoes and other members of the nightshade family are heavy phosphorus and potassium feeders and affect the soil in similar ways. Crops should be rotated with the consideration of their contrasting demands on the soil. Simply rotating any two crops won’t necessarily provide benefits. Read more about crop rotation here.
Add mulch around plants where needed. If you mulched deeply in the fall, you may need to remove some of the mulch so that there is a layer 2-4 inches deep. This will help you get a head start on suppressing weeds as well as aid in retaining moisture.
Set a timetable to determine when to plant various vegetable crops, both indoors and out. Plant cool season crops such as lettuce, spinach, broccoli and peas as soon as the ground can be worked, once soil temperatures rise above 40 degrees. Warm season crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, can be started indoors six weeks or so before going into the garden. To insure great growing light for those plants started indoors — a sunny window is only partly efficient and not efficient at all in cloudy spring weather — consider investing in a grow light. Harden-off plants started indoors gradually and plant them in the garden when they are ready. Warm-season crop seed to be sown directly in the garden can be planted when soil temperatures have reached 60 degrees.
Water intelligently, which means deeply and not as frequently as you might think. Shallow, frequent waterings discourage the root growth of young plants and allow soil to dry out completely. Lettuce and other shallow rooted greens need less-deep watering than deep rooted crops like tomatoes and corn. Methods of watering can be crucial. Don’t sprinkle foliage, like tomatoes, that are prone to leaf disease (sprinklers, though convenient, waste water by wetting paths and borders; they also lose water to wind and evaporation). If you’re using a water-saving drip-irrigation system — a smart move — to avoid the common problem of over-watering. In most areas, you can keep your lawn healthy with one-two inches of water per week. The actual amount of water your grass needs, of course, depends on your climate. Water should penetrate the ground to six inches. It’s better to water deeply twice a week than lightly everyday. Keep your lawn mower set at two inches or higher. The taller grass will help insulate the ground and keep the roots from getting too hot. Visit our lawn care guide for more information.
If needed, add mulch to vegetable and flower gardens — and around trees and shrubs — to help reduce the loss of water and aid in suppressing weeds.
Feed plants with an organic fertilizer (liquid fish fertilizer works wonders) according to the label’s directions. Be careful not to over-fertilize, which may burn plants and cause them to wither. Compost tea is a good spot fertilizer choice which, if brewed properly, offers less chance of over fertilizing.
Even with good mulching, you’ll likely need to weed throughout the summer. Either pull by hand or use an organic herbicide.
Plant annuals. There is still time to plant roses, trees and shrubs as long as you don’t over fertilize and provide plenty of water.
As fruits and vegetables ripen, harvest and store (PDF). Better yet, enjoy them immediately, preferably raw, if possible. After harvesting early crops, work the soil and plant spinach, lettuce, kale and other cool weather crops for fall harvest.
Summer is the time to enjoy watching your plants grow and fill out. Take time to sit in the garden and relax.
Leave your lawn a little longer when you mow than you have during the summer and leave the grass clippings to nourish the soil. Apply a lawn fertilizer and seed any bare areas. Continue to water deeply until the ground freezes.
Keep watering trees and shrubs deeply until the ground freezes.
Though fall is a favorite time to prune early spring blooming trees and shrubs, pruning should be done after blooming (which may mean early summer) or after fruiting. In the fall, prune trees and shrubs to rid them of diseased wood and encourage growth. Pruning will also improve the aesthetics of your plants.
Dig and store summer bulbs such as dahlias and gladiolus. In general, after the first frost, trim the foliage off the plants and gently dig up the bulbs, corms, tubers or rhizomes. Dust off the dirt and dry at room temperature for a few days. Store in a paper bag in a cool, dark, dry place without a lot of temperature fluctuation.
In early autumn, add fall annuals to the garden. Ornamental kale, pansies and mums add color and texture to fading flowerbeds.
Now is the time to plant cover crops such as grasses or legumes to enrich the soil during the gardening off-season. Cover crops will also help prevent soil erosion.
Cut back frost-killed foliage of perennials. If your perennial flowers have edible seeds (such as sunflowers and coneflowers) you may consider leaving them for the birds to enjoy and cut them back in the spring.
Plant and divide spring and summer blooming perennials. Water the plants well for a day or two before you plan to divide them. Prepare the soil and dig a hole in their new home before excavating the plants. Dig deeply on all sides of the plant, 4-6 inches away from outermost branches and lift the plant out of the soil. Shake the loose soil off the plant’s roots and divide. Place the plant in its new space, fill with soil and water well.
Plant shrubs and evergreens in early fall, then water well until the ground freezes.
Pull and compost dead annuals. Cover the soil with mulch so it won’t erode over the winter.
Get your beds ready for spring planting by amending the soil in your garden and flowerbeds with organic compost now. This gives the microbes and other beneficial organisms contained in compost time to work their magic.
After several frosts, mulch the vegetable garden, flowerbeds and around trees. Three-six inches of mulch should help plants over-winter. If you mulch to early, you’re providing a lovely, insulated home for rodents, so be sure to wait until the frosts have sent them scurrying for a winter home.
Don’t mulch on top of plants, but rather around them. Mulch will help retain moisture, impede weeds and protect plants through the cold winter. Grass clippings, bark chips, straw and other organic materials make great mulch. Inorganic materials — stones, brick chips and plastic — work to provide cover for the soil but don’t enrich it and may be a problem come cleanup time. The abundance of autumn leaves provide a ready source of mulch. They can also be composted. For either purpose, shred them first with the mower. How much mulch to use can be a matter of detailed calculation or not. How you mulch — casually or mathematically — depends on your personality as much as your needs.
In places that suffer winter — or enjoy it, as you choose — be sure to drain and bring in hoses, irrigation lines and fountains. Let them dry completely so they’ll be in perfect condition for next year.
In temperate climates, winter is just another, slower season for growing. In harsher climates, winter is the time for your garden to sleep and for you to dream. Start looking through catalogs, online or paper, to plan your garden. There’s an art to understanding garden catalogs and a certain amount of discipline is required not to order everything in sight. Reread the garden journal you painstakingly kept last year (or resolve to keep one this year) to decide what plants you loved and want again and which plants you plan to switch out for new varieties. Consider the crop rotations you thought about last spring, or learn how to build the perfect raised bed but, most of all, enjoy the summer sunlight held in the garden vegetables you so carefully put up in the fall. And peek under the snow where last season’s kale flourished. You just might be surprised what you’ll find.
Take time on a sunny, less-than-frigid winter day to clean and sharpen garden tools. Not only will they be ready to go in spring, but they will last longer. And so will you.