First thing first: I don’t like to selectively prune out more than one-third of a tree or shrub at one time. In other words, the material I remove overall is one third or less of the plant. Taking more than that – unless I’m removing dead material – could be too stressful for the plant.
Pruning in late winter or early spring will showcase trees and shrubs in their best light, all through the year. Taking time to look at my plants and trees before they’ve leafed out is the best time to check for any inward growth which needs to be cleaned out. Promote outward-growing branches to allow air flow and light to reach the center-most areas of your plant. I also look for crossing or parallel tree branches, which should be removed.
This time of year, I look at my trees and shrubs as art pieces, pruning for form and shape. Pruning is part art as well as part science. If your plant looks good now, without foliage, it will look great once it is in full leaf and bloom.
Planting trees and shrubs in fall and winter offer the maximum amount of time for them to establish before the stresses of summer. If there is a plant you wanted to move or transplant last season but didn’t get around to it, now is your chance to dig it up and introduce it to a new location. As always when planting, be sure to water everything in well to remove air pockets, settle the soil around the roots, and keep the soil moist.
This is the perfect time to get that mulch down too. A key benefit to mulch is weed suppression, so setting up that mulch barrier now will save you weeding time during the growing season. If your beds aren’t planted tightly enough to prevent the sun from reaching the soil or if you have any open areas, a 2” (or deeper) layer of mulch will block the sun from germinating those weed seeds. Adding mulch around trees and shrubs helps reduce weeds and retain moisture in the soil. Mulch also reduces soil erosion from heavy rains and will insulate soil from summer heat – which helps keep the soil moist and reduces the need for supplemental watering.
This time of year, it’s also much easier to get underneath your plants to spread that mulch. I recommend spreading up to within a couple of inches of the base of the plant. It’s best not to push the mulch up along the trunk, as that can create an easier path for pests and disease.
I amend my soil with compost twice each year. The first time is typically in February to plant my new seedlings and the second time is in fall when I’m clearing out and cleaning up my summer crops to prepare planting for my cool season vegetables.
I’ll be adding compost a few weeks before I will be planting. This allows time for the soil microbes and all the other beneficial organisms to work with the biology already at work in my beds. To amend my soil, I add about one inch of compost to the surface of all my raised beds and a bit more to my in-ground beds. I may turn that compost into the existing soil slightly, but I usually just let the compost sit on top.
I have really healthy soil, and there is a lot of good things going on under the surface already. So, I don’t want to disturb that. I can let the microbes work that new compost in on their own. When I’m improving my soil in fall, I use up all the compost I’ve built up over the spring and summer. I continue to make new compost throughout the winter, and I use that compost now.
Think of your garden beds like a bank account. Your plants are making soil withdrawals, so you need to be making soil health deposits.
Another important thing this time of year is to remember that your garden tools need to be in top condition to help you be successful throughout the season. Clean off any rust, grime, and residue from your pruners, the blades on shovels, etc. Most good pruners are made with the ability to buy and install replacement parts or – at a minimum – sharpen the blade. Pruning with a dull blade is the worst thing you can do to your plants. Rather than a clean cut, which heals quickly and promotes growth, you will end up with a tear or a wound and create the opportunity for disease.
Use some steel wool and some oil to sharpen your shovels, so that they are at the ready for this season. For those tools with a wooden handle, I recommend a light sanding with fine-grit sandpaper. Run the sandpaper up the handle a bit, and then, rub a little linseed oil into the wood. Tools work best when they’re in top condition. An off-season tune-up of all your tools will serve you well when they’re called back into service. I’m a frugal gardener, but I also believe you get what you pay for. Invest in quality tools and invest the time to care for them properly. They will last you a lifetime.
It may seem like a lot but investing some time now in garden prep helps ensure your garden can provide a healthy home for your crops come spring. The payoff is worth it!