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The joys and toils of spring gardening

This spring has been unseasonably cool, but soon plants like these will be flowering in the warmth of spring and summer. Submitted photo 1 / 2
Flowering plants such as these offer pops of color each spring. Submitted photo 2 / 2

Spring is my favorite time of year despite the frequent setbacks we have in this part of the country. The sights, sounds and smells of spring are so exciting. Long before spotting the first robin, I hear returning song birds’ music. Honking overhead causes me to look up and see wave after wave of geese heading north. Now I wake up in the morning to the cooing of mourning doves.

The smell of the earth makes me want to dig in, but it is necessary to wait until the frost is out of the ground and the soil dries somewhat. Soon flowering crabapple and plum trees will perfume the air and what a sight that is. I check my gardens each day looking for my old friends, the perennials and the tulips to pop out of the ground. Hopefully the hard winter did not kill any of them.

Spring means a multitude of gardening chores, but we have had a long winter’s rest so should be ready to go. Perennials require minimal care, however you cannot plant them and forget them. As the shoots begin to show up, carefully remove any mulch, keeping some nearby in case of a late hard frost. Bleeding hearts are especially tender when they first come up so keep some mulch around them. Trim off all of the dead foliage and cut old stems to the ground. Be careful around late emerging perennials such as Balloon flower, hardy Hibiscus and Butterfly weed. It is easy to step on them or hoe them up. Next fall, plant spring bulbs around them to mark their spots.

When it is relatively certain that freezes are past, clean up all the garden debris. This sanitization helps rid the garden of pests. It won’t help with the worst pests, the rabbits, who discovered my early tulips before I did. I sprinkle blood meal around tulip sprouts and it seems to deter rabbit damage.

Most perennials perform better if they are divided every few years. If you noticed that some plants are not blooming as much or that some have floppy growth it is probably time to divide them. Many plants bloom only around the outside leaving an open center. These need dividing. Some perennials, such as purple coneflower and Geranium can go many years without dividing and Peonies can be left indefinitely. Iris need dividing every two to three years. Asters, Chrysanthemums, Rudbeckia and Achillea benefit from yearly division or at least every other year.

Spring is the time to divide perennials that bloom in summer or fall. The ground is soft and moist in spring so it is a fairly easy job. Begin as soon as new growth appears or when it is less than 3 to 4 inches tall. Wait until August or September to divide spring blooming plants. It is possible to divide plants at other times if needed, but do not do so in the hottest and driest weather or too late in fall and never when they are ready to bloom. Pick a cloudy day. When dividing full grown plants cut the foliage back, leaving only a third of it.

Dig up a clump with a garden fork or shovel and set it on the ground. Some plants easily separate into smaller divisions, others are not so easy. If the dirt falls away, keep the roots moist in a pail of water and replant soon. One method to separate tough clumps, such as Daylily is to take two garden forks back to back and pry the clump apart. You may also take a sharp knife and cut the clump into sections. I like a bread knife. Divide into sections with 3-5 crowns for a full mass of bloom. Toss away the old spent center.

Add some compost or other organic amendment to the planting holes. Plant the divisions at the same depth as they were growing at and water them in well. In our soil perennials need little fertilizer, but it is good to spread a layer of compost or manure over the soil every two to four years. Excess fertilizer can cause poor flowering, leggy growth and a stunted root system according to Melinda Meyers, author of “Gardening in the Dakotas.”

Put up support systems like peony rings when the plants are still small. This way the foliage will eventually hide them. If you wait too late, it is very difficult to enclose plants without damage and they will not have a natural look.

Tall Phlox and Monarda (Beebalm are subject to powdery mildew. When the stems are 8 inches tall thin out 1/4 to 1/3 of them to allow in light and air flow. Mums and Asters should be pinched back to 4-6 inches through May and June.

A little work early in the season will reap many benefits throughout the rest of the year, but don’t forget to smell the blossoms and listen to the birds.

Breitling is a longtime West Fargo resident and avid gardener always in search of new ideas.