Winter is messy, and the winter that officially ended about a month ago was messier than most. High wind and heavy snow combined to knock down branches and trees. Leaves seemed to blow in daily. Much later than normal this spring, the soil was too soggy to work.

It’s two weeks after Patriots Day weekend, the time I’ve always believed gardening begins in southern Maine. Few Mainers did much yard work that weekend this year.

So, today is the day to begin – if you haven’t managed to get some work done yet. It’s still April, the showery month before you expect to see the bright blooms of May.

The first step is to take a walk around the yard. Look at the crocuses, crested iris, tulips, daffodils, bloodroot, forsythia or anything else that happens to be in bloom, just to get in the right mood.

Then pick up limbs and other debris that might be hard to compost and pile them up for a later dump run. See if plants or any garden fixtures were damaged over the winter. Do the pruning and repairs first because you can do that work even if the soil is soggy.

Then rake the lawn – even if it doesn’t look like it needs it. This won’t take as long as it did in the fall, but you will pick up some leaves, twigs and dead grass. Television commercials will try to convince you to fertilize. Don’t. Established lawns should be fertilized in the fall, if at all.

Now you get to the flower gardens – the perennial borders, island beds, foundation plantings and the areas lining driveways and walkways that make your home attractive.

The first step is to create a good garden edge. A neat, nicely cut edge will camouflage a lot of other problems.

The simplest edge is created with a half-moon edger, a simple tool with a sharp blade. You place the edger where you want to create an edge and then step on the edger and push it slightly away from you. You’ll need to come back and pick up all the pieces of lawn that you cut off, but this creates an even division between the lawn and the garden. Growing lawn creeps into a flower bed and creates a ragged edge, which looks messy. A straight line gives a sense of order and makes a nice impression on people viewing your garden.

The edger goes about three inches deep, and you can pull back on the handle a bit to loosen the sod you don’t want. I prefer an edger with a five-foot handle, but that is personal. Some come with handles as short as three feet long.

That sharply defined edge between lawn and soil or mulch might be all you need. Some people like the garden soil to be an inch or two lower than the lawn, to create a more distinct edge, while others prefer a physical edge of some kind.

My wife Nancy and I edge many of our gardens with bricks that we keep at ground level – making for easy mowing (you run one set of mower wheels on the edge bricks when you mow) – but stone or steel edges also work.

From personal experience, I suggest you avoid any plastic edging. No matter how careful you are, you will hit it with the lawnmower, cutting the plastic and ruining the clean look.

Now is the time for weeding. Even if you did a thorough weeding of the gardens last fall, some witch grass, plantain or other weeds have grown since then. I don’t know how, but it happens.

We collect all the weeds and grass edges in five-gallon pails and dump them in our compost bins. Whatever you do, don’t just throw the weeds and trimmings on the lawn, thinking you’ll come back at the end of the day and pick them all up. You won’t.

What you have done so far has been routine, boring work. It’s nice to be outside in what you hope is sun and warmth, and it is work that needs to be done, but it’s not exciting.

While weeding, you will have noticed if any perennials are getting too large, dead in the middle or crowding neighboring plants. You should dig and divide those plants, using some of the divisions to fill in sparse spots in your gardens – or perhaps to create a new garden.

In earlier years, I would have urged you to give these plants away. But with winter moth or other pests possibly in your soil, you should give plants only to people in your neighborhood – who probably have the same invasive insects you do.

If there are vacant spots that you don’t want to fill with plants you have dug and divided, it’s time to make a list and shop. Surely you’ve been lusting for some new plants, and this is a good time to buy them. Part of the excitement of gardening is trying new things, and most of us need more excitement.

The final big question is this: to mulch or not to mulch (See Sea Change, page S2, for more on mulch).

Nancy and I use aged, shredded mulch made of bark and wood chips on bare spots in the garden – but mostly we put our ornamental plants close together and use ground covers to minimize the amount of bare space in the gardens.

True bark mulch comes from when the bark is trimmed from trees before they are transformed to lumber or pulp, and with cutbacks in U.S. forest industries there isn’t much bark mulch left. Some mulch is made from wood gathered from building demolitions, and you don’t want that.

Buy mulch from a supplier you trust, and make sure it is all virgin wood. Some darker mulches are dyed, and while the dyes are not toxic they do leach out and stain skin and gloves, plus their colors fade during our winters. I avoid them.

We smooth the mulch with the flat back of an iron rake, and bring it right up to where we have cut the edge of the lawn. We usually put down about two inches of mulch each spring.

And if you see more than a square foot of mulch in any one spot, you need to let the plants grow larger or buy additional plants.

Mulch is meant to be practically invisible as it does its job.

ABOUT THE WRITER

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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