With winter behind us and the weather gradually warming up, one look out my window and I know exactly where I need to focus my attention — the garden. Whether you have a garden, an expansive lawn, or just a simple balcony or stoop, there's something here to help everyone. Here's how I ready my outdoor space for a summer filled with gardening, cocktails and get-togethers.
1. Reflect & Evaluate: Spend some time taking stock of what worked in your garden last year and what didn't — before spending a lot of time and money on what might garner you the same unimpressive results as last year. Make a list of plants you were successful with, as well as the ones that you want to rule out. In some cases, you might have been successful growing it (like my okra), but realize it didn't work for your space (was too big for my small garden). If you spent way too much time watering last summer, this year you might want to invest in more drought-tolerant plants or put in soaker hoses to help with this task. Maybe you discovered your Hostas were getting sun-scorched during the hottest part of the summer, so this year you plan to move them to a shadier location.
Don't forget to think about areas in your garden that were sparse or too cramped; sometimes just moving one plant to a new location can make all the difference. I find it useful to keep a gardening journal for notes, planting dates, pictures of my garden, plant tags, and inspirational magazine clippings.
2. Weeding & Debris: Oh, the chore that just keeps giving and giving. But seriously, even though this is an ongoing process, this is a must at the early stage! By removing as many weeds as possible now, you are preventing the weeds from having the opportunity to flower and go to seed. Also, the damp soil that spring provides makes weeding now a much easier task. Remember not to compost weeds!
As I'm weeding, I take the time to remove the fallen leaves from my beds and containers as well. While a few leaves here and there aren't anything to lose sleep over, layers of leaves can cause molding and decaying, not to mention they can be a bit unsightly.
3. Lawn Care: After putting in a flower bed in my small space out front, I currently have no grass to tend. But for those of you who do, this is the perfect time of year to start cleaning up the debris littering your yard from the winter months. Leaves and the other leftover organic matter can be added to your compost pile or bin.
If your lawn has bare spots, re-seed the missing areas and fertilize with a slow-release organic fertilizer. If you own a lawnmower, you might also want to consider servicing it or sharpening the blades. And if your grass could already use a trimming, set your mower blades on the highest setting. Spring grass is more delicate from the brutal winter and could use a bit of TLC to recover.
4. Pruning: If you didn't clean up your dead annuals before winter, you can compost them now. When it comes to perennials, some people like to cut them back before winter, but I prefer to leave the pruning for spring since it gives them extra protection during the cold months. Woody stemmed perennials, such as lavender, need to be pruned once growth appears at the plant's base, as they only bloom on new branches.
If you didn't cut back your roses, go for it. Aside from climbing roses (you can prune them just after blooming), roses need to have their dead branches removed and their center opened up to allow air circulation (prevents that pesky mildew).
Always use sharp, sterilized pruners and clip on an angle, above an emerging bud that faces outward. Trim ornamental grasses to a few inches from the ground, regardless of whether you see new growth.
5. Soil: If last year proved unsuccessful in the garden, you might want to have your soil tested or buy a soil testing kit that you can do yourself. Many counties and cities will do this for free, but you'll have to look into this for your area. A soil test will let you know what your soil is missing so you can amend it.
If your soil is rich of nutrients, adding a little compost or slow-release organic fertilizer should do the trick. It's also wise to aerate the soil before you start planting, which allows oxygen to reach the plant's roots. You should do the same to your raised beds and compost bin or pile.
6. Dividing & Transplanting: It can be shocking to see what your plants were up to while you were absent. For instance, my Forget-me-Nots were multiplying like rabbits! But spring is the perfect time to divide and move your overly-ambitious perennials or become the Debbie Do-Gooder of your block by giving the extras to your gardening neighbors. You could also try to arrange a group swap with your like-minded garden pals.
7. Cleaning: It's amazing the toll a few harsh months can take on your outdoor space. I have leaves piled in my porch corner, debris under my deck tiles, filthy outside doors and windows, and the list just keeps going. Try to get a head start on this unpleasant task by tackling a little each day.
Back in March, we had some gorgeous weather, so I took the opportunity to clean my windows and doors, as well as my outdoor pillows and cushions. The grill could still use a good cleaning and the same is true for my birdbaths and feeders.
Don't forget to wipe down your garden furniture; oil, stain, and seal if need be. It may sound tedious, but it's also important to clean and sterilize your pots and planters. This is an especially important task if it housed a diseased plant. To sterilize, a simple solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water should do the trick.
8. Storage: While I try to leave as much outside as possible, I'm careful to store certain items before the winter rolls around. Now is the perfect time to bring these out of storage. My fancy blown-glass string lights, umbrella, pillows, and lanterns all get put back into their warm weather location.
9. Houseplants: Many of my houseplants go for a little vacation outdoors for the season. But to truly help your plants acclimate properly, it's not wise to just plop them on the balcony — even if you've had the last frost of the season. Doing this will cause your plants to go into shock instead of adjusting to their new environment.
Since light is the biggest factor to take into consideration, find a shady spot for them to adjust and sit them outside for a few hours at a time. You can gradually increase the length of time they spend outdoors, as well as the amount of sunshine they are receiving. In a few weeks, your plants should be happy in their new summer home.
10. Plan: I'm without a doubt a list maker. Of course, this doesn't always mean I accomplish everything on my list, but it's far easier for me to stay organized with a list than without. It's wise to keep a list of what essentials you'll need from the garden center, the hardware store, or things to order online. This keeps me from having to make multiple trips to the store when I inevitably forget something. I also make a list of tasks I need to tackle in the garden, as well as a list of topics that I need to devote a little research to.
Included on my list for example: 1) our blueberry bushes need a protective cage built to keep the birds from stealing the fruit, 2) I need to buy summer bulbs this weekend so I can get them in the ground, and 3) I need to research some shade-loving bushes for my sparse side flower bed. With multiple lists going, if it happens to be raining outside, I can start shopping for things I need or tackle items that should be researched — without wasting time trying to remember what I need to do.
Starring items keeps them prioritized, so I know what I need to work on first. For those with a simple small garden this might not be necessary, but as your garden grows, tasks can soon become overwhelming or easily forgotten. And it's always satisfying to cross things off your list as you accomplish them.
Images: Top: David and James' Modern Courtyard Garden; 4: Johannes Gilger for TigerFDN; All other images: Kimberly Watson