The days are getting longer, the temperatures are beginning to warm and the gardening bug is starting to bite -- hard. But the soil is too wet to venture into perennial borders to plant, so what's a gardener to do?
Prune. The landscape is full of opportunities and reasons to wield your pruners. Removing dead, damaged or overgrown stems lowers the incidence of future disease and pest problems. Well-pruned plants grow and bloom with more energy and they look better, too.
While some projects are best left to industry professionals, fear of a misplaced cut should not stop gardeners from picking up their pruning shears. Just as a bad haircut grows out, a plant will almost always grow out of a pruning mistake.
There are a variety of plants that respond beautifully to early spring pruning. If we can't dig, let's prune!
Early spring is the best time to cut back ornamental grasses left standing for winter interest. Old stems should be removed before new growth begins. Smaller grasses can be pruned with pruning shears. Larger clumps will require hedge clippers, loppers or a saw.
Starting at the bases of tall grasses, gather foliage together and tie them tightly with twine. It is much easier to pick up one large bundle rather than hundreds of individual blades of grass. Cut down old stems to within inches of the ground so sunlight and air can reach the interior.
Remove just the damaged or dead foliage from evergreen or semi-evergreen grasses and sedges. Wearing a rubber glove, comb through grasses pulling dead blades from clumps. After extremely harsh winters, cutting them back by half may be necessary.
Don a pair of elbow-length leather gloves before heading to the rose garden to prune. Regardless of the type of rose, begin by removing dead, broken and spindly canes.
Shrub roses benefit from tip pruning canes down to live wood. For best blooming, a more severe pruning is required. Cut roses back by half to two-thirds depending on the desired height of the rose.
Remove crossing branches of climbing roses and any canes outgrowing their support. Limit tip pruning to avoid cutting off their first flush of flowers. Now is also a good time to train and tie canes to their structure. Prune hybrid teas aggressively. After dead, damaged and spindly canes are removed, choose about five canes evenly spaced around the base to form a framework for new growth. After eliminating all other canes, cut back the remaining canes just above an outward-facing bud about a foot from the ground.
It may or may not be the appropriate time to prune clematis. Clematis are divided into three groups. Early bloomers bloom on last year's growth. Pruning now will remove this year's flowers. Wait to prune these until June, just after they've finished flowering.
Some clematis produce two flushes of bloom. Prune out dead or weak stems now but wait to do more vigorous pruning until after their first flowering to encourage an exuberant late-season display of blooms.
Clematis in the third group bloom on new wood. These can be pruned to within a foot or so of the ground. When pruning all types of clematis, cuts should be made just above a pair of swelling buds.
If gardeners can't dig, who cares? There is plenty to do in the garden with a pair of pruners.
• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist, garden writer and speaker. She blogs at gardenwithdiana.com.