Patience is required at this time of the year

  • Wait to prune forsythia so you don't remove its beautiful blooms.

    Wait to prune forsythia so you don't remove its beautiful blooms. Courtesy of Diana Stoll

By Diana Stoll
Posted3/22/2020 7:00 AM

Early spring can be a frustrating time for gardeners. Warm sun-filled days beckon us outside, but we must be careful. These are a few of the common mistakes overeager gardeners make.

Working in soil that is too wet may be the worst mistake made by gardeners who end up spending years trying to correct. We can't wait to get in the garden to cut back last year's stems, clean out dead foliage and pull rambunctious weeds (that always seem to get a jump on the perennials).


Melting snow and spring rains are soaked up by the soil, filling open pore space with water. Stepping on wet soil crushes the spaces, leaving compacted soil difficult for roots to traverse. It takes many years of amending with organic matter to undo the damage done.

If you must go in the garden, set some boards in the garden to step on. They will distribute your weight and minimize the damage. Some gardeners have steppingstones permanently positioned throughout the garden to give them a place to step.

To determine if your soil is ready to be worked, pick up a handful and squeeze. If, when you open your hand, the ball crumbles easily, go ahead and garden. If, instead you end up with a ball of mud in your hand, wait a few days and try the test again.

If gardeners can't get in the garden, they might reach for the pruners to prune some shrubs, yet be sure before any mistake is made. If we prune certain shrubs in early spring, we will be removing the flower buds that bloom on last year's growth.

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Some shrubs set their blooms on growth produced the year before and should not be pruned until after they bloom. Common shrubs that should not be pruned in early spring include forsythia, Japanese kerria, lilac, smoke bush, weigela and some hydrangeas.

Go ahead and prune shrubs that bloom on new growth, including butterfly bush, Japanese spirea, potentilla, rose-of-Sharon, viburnum and some hydrangeas. It is also an ideal time to cut back one third of the stems of red-twig dogwoods to keep shrubs bright red for winter interest.

We must also be patient about mulching. Mulch acts as a blanket, maintaining soil temperature. Cold soil is kept cold longer when a 2-inch layer of mulch is insulating it from the warm rays of the sun, and perennials don't awaken as quickly in cold soil. Wait to mulch until mid to late spring.

Overplanting is another common mistake. If you have room in the garden for two tomato plants, don't plant six. And just because you bought a packet of seeds doesn't mean you have to plant the entire packet. Plants spaced too tightly together are at increased risk for fungal diseases.


Plant the vegetable garden with vegetables your family will actually eat. There is no sense planting broccoli if no one in your family likes broccoli. And if you are the only person in your family who loves tomatoes, one or two plants will provide plenty. However, if you love to garden and have plenty of space, go ahead and fill it with a variety of vegetables and donate the extra harvest to your local food pantry.

A mistake I would bet all gardeners have made is overdoing their first day in the garden. We dig, we rake, we prune, we plant and, then, we pay for it. Gardening muscles have been at rest all winter and need to ease back into gardening. Even if you pride yourself for staying in good shape, gardening activities often use different muscles. Be the turtle, not the hare.

• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist, garden writer and speaker. She blogs at

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