This roller coaster of a winter has been a nightmare for gardeners here in mid-Missouri. One day, the thermometer reads 16 below zero and you are spreading ice melt so that the mail carrier can make it up the driveway to the mail slot. Then, a mere four days later, it is a balmy 58 degrees and you’re in the yard seriously thinking about getting a jump on your spring gardening chores. Before you begin pulling weeds, spading the garden, doing some trimming or raking up those piles of dead leaves, I have a piece of advice for you. DON’T. Just don’t. The urge to get in some early gardening chores can backfire on you. At its worst, jumping the landscaping gun can cause real harm to your landscape, or at the very least, you could wind up having to repeat what you’ve already done. Neither is a particularly pleasant outcome.
Although meandering through the garden and randomly pulling a few weeds may seem like a harmless endeavor, it can have unintended consequences. What appears to be a skinny little weed poking through the soil could be the foliage of those tiny, and expensive, snowdrop bulbs you lovingly planted - and then forgot about - last fall. A hefty pull and one (or more) of the spring blooms you were really looking forward to is gone forever.
After experiencing a few warm days in a row, I know that It can be tempting to think about getting out and working the ground for the new bed you have planned. A few passes with the tiller seem to be in order. Unfortunately, instead of loosening the soil to get it ready for a collection of new plants, you may be turning the patch of ground into a dead zone that could potentially last for years to come. Soil that appears to be dry on the surface is most likely holding onto wintertime moisture underneath. By turning wet soil, you are actually pushing soil particles together rather than separating them. Come spring, those tightly packed soil particles become clumps of ground that resemble concrete. Not only are they hard for you to break up, it is nearly impossible for root systems to weave through them. With little room for air and water to reach root systems, plants are destined to fail.
Instead of looking out the windows and seeing a yard full of bedraggled beds, think of them as safe harbors for a huge variety of sleeping insects. Last fall, native pollinators like small bees, parasitic wasps, lady beetles and even lightning bugs burrowed into plant stems, leaf piles and underground tunnels for safety and for rest. Until temperatures stay consistently warm and day-length increases, many of those beneficial insects will remain in diapause, a physiological state similar to hibernation. Disturbing their habitat before they are ready to emerge, will likely kill them. Some insects, like bumblebees, mining bees and mason bees, are considered early risers, which means they will frequent the garden in cooler daytime temperatures, but need to return to the warmth and protection of their leaf pile homes in the cool of the evenings.
Finally, restrain the impulse to add a fresh layer of mulch over your existing beds. While it may look neat and tidy, adding more mulch to an already amply covered bed can be disastrous for sleeping pollinators and dormant plants. As insects emerge from their winter resting spot they are in a weakened state. Finding food is an immediate need, but that becomes difficult if all of their energy has been used clearing a pathway through extra inches of fresh mulch. Plants too can suffer from too much mulch. Excessive mulch, meaning more than four inches, can have several harmful effects. It can prevent air from reaching root systems, slowly suffocating plants. It can form a barrier that keeps moisture from reaching the soil, slowly dehydrating plants. It can hold too much moisture on plant crowns, causing them to rot. It can rob the soil of nitrogen, causing yellowing of new foliage.
Mother Nature has graced her creation with natural rhythms – seasons to grow and seasons to rest. As gardeners, we not only learn to understand the tempo of these rhythms, we also learn to use them to our advantage, creating landscapes that are both beautiful and productive. So relax and enjoy a few more weeks of rest; spring will be here soon and then it will be the right time to tackle all the garden chores, just like Mother Nature intended.