Early Spring Gardening


Springtime in the Rockies can challenge a gardener’s patience. One day, the snow is flying fast and furious, and the next the sun comes out and you can’t wait to get outside. Anyone who has lived here a year or more knows better than to plant this early; winter is slow to let go, sometimes lingering until mid-May. Yet, those gorgeous sunny days just beg for time spent in the garden. Go ahead—there are plenty of other chores that need our attention.


If you have a yard full of perennials, don the thickest gardening gloves you can find and start removing last year’s growth. This is best done before you have to carefully work around new leaves. Some plants make it easy—just attack them with your protected hands, then rake up and compost the dead twigs and leaves. Others are a bit more stubborn, and require the judicious use of pruning shears and clippers. It’s a bit of a hassle, but for many perennials, this will the only maintenance they need all year.

Ornamental Grass pruned_DBG-CO_LAH_5861While you’re out there, now is the time to cut back your ornamental grasses. Leaving the dead leaves and dried flowers all winter protects the crown, traps snow for extra moisture, and adds interest to the landscape. Now, however, new growth will be starting, and it’s much easier to cut back the grass clumps before new growth interferes.

Our new house isn’t so new anymore, and our landscape is approaching its fourth growing season. The drip irrigation we installed back in 2015 is no longer adequate. We’ve also made some changes, moving some plants and adding others. This month, while my perennials are still dormant (or small) and out of the way, I’ll be pulling back the mulch to check on the existing emitters and add new ones.

watering tree 2For example, when our trees were brand new, their root were limited to the size of the burlap bag they came in. We needed to apply water where it would reach those roots. Now, the roots have spread out into the soil and we no longer need to water so close to the trunk. I’ll remove those drippers and create several concentric new rings further from each tree. Eventually, as their roots venture even further, mixing with nearby shrubs and groundcovers, we probably won’t need to separately water the trees at all. (This tree at our community center gets its water from the lawn sprinklers. There are no feeder roots where the soaker hose is watering.)

Once I’m confident that my plants will receive the water they need, I’ll replace the mulch layer, adding more as needed. I’m aiming for three to four inches of mulch. As much as I’d love to use wood chips, which studies show are the best choice for healthy plants and soil, our HOA limits our choices to rocks or “gorilla hair” (shredded bark). I’m not overly fond of rocks, so gorilla hair it is.

We’re also adding drip to the containers on our deck. I’m tired of hauling a heavy watering can to every flowerpot, sometimes more than once a day! We’re planning to attach the spaghetti tubing to the deck railing supports, rather than running it up the pots’ drainage holes, because I still want the flexibility of moving the pots to shelter when hail threatens.

Not all the garden chores happen outside, so we can make good use of the snowy days, too. While some seeds—such as leeks and onions, violas and geraniums—take a long time to reach transplant size and should have been started already, it’s finally time for us high-altitude gardeners to begin sowing many of our flower and vegetable seeds. We’re still too early for fast-growing frost-tender plants such as zinnias, squash, and melons, but lettuce, peppers, eggplant, and many annuals can be started now.


It’s also our last chance to provide a cold treatment for seeds that won’t germinate without it. Sow the seeds in a container of moist potting mix. Place the container in a plastic bag and refrigerate it for four weeks. Finally, remove the bag and move the container to a warm, well-lit spot so the seeds can sprout and grow.

I also start my tomatoes extra early, but then I commit to repeatedly repotting them into ever larger containers, and then hauling the plants in and out every day for weeks in May. The things we do for homegrown tomatoes!

Finally, March is a good time to do a bit of dreaming. What changes will you make this growing season? Last fall, we pulled out some catmints that had gotten too big for their space. Now that empty spot is brimming with possibilities. March, before the spring garden frenzy starts in earnest, is an ideal time to thumb through books and magazines, and look at pretty gardens online. If everything grows as I hope it will, by mid-summer my garden will look that pretty too!

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