As soon as you spot crocuses and daffodils coming up in your garden, your first instinct might be to grab a rake and start tidying things up. But that could do more harm than good for your garden and the creatures that call it home.
“People are eager to get out and get their hands dirty because it’s been a long winter and also because we don’t have a long growing season,” says Ashlea Hegedus-Viola, a gardener at the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens.
“They want to jump the gun, but you can’t rush the seasons.”
Soil needs time to warm
It may feel like spring outside, but your garden needs more time to catch up. The ground takes longer to warm up than the air. “The top few inches of soil are warmer than down below,” says Hegedus-Viola.
As things thaw, garden beds can become wet and muddy – another reason to stay out of them until things dry out. “Stomping around in the garden can trample the roots and compact the soil,” Hegedus-Viola adds. “To take up water and nutrients effectively, plants need soil that’s not compacted.”
Ease into it and start small
Gardening is more physical than you might think; after a long break, going back full steam could strain your body. “Even if you’ve been active over the winter, it takes time to get going again when you haven’t used your back and arms,” Hegedus-Viola says. “It’s best to ease into things.”
Tidying things up in stages will give your body – and the garden – time to adjust. Hegedus-Viola recommends starting with a small area of your garden where you’ve planted spring bulbs. “You want to see them, so you can clean them up earlier.”
If you can, wait for the temperature to reach 10° Celsius for at least one week before tackling the rest of your garden. Resist the urge to weed for now – you probably forgotten what you’ve planted where, making it easy to mistake a plant for a weed.
Shelter insects and pollinators
Cleaning up gradually can benefit native bugs, insects and pollinators by giving them more time to emerge from their winter homes. Moths, butterflies, bees, caterpillars and beetles all come out at different times over the season.
If you must clean up before the weather warms, pile leaves, seed pods and other plant debris in loose piles in your garden. “Try and do a rough clean up and then fine-tune it later,” says Hegedus-Viola. “You’ll give the insects a better chance.”
Don’t cut stalks down to the ground – leave behind about 30 cm as they may be sheltering insects like mason and carpenter bees (some of their favourite hideouts include sunflowers, goldenrod and roses). “As the plants start growing, the new growth will cover up the old stalks anyway.”
Help the birds
Many species of caterpillars overwinter on trees and drop to the ground in the spring. With one caterpillar the food equivalent of 280 aphids, they are an essential food source for birds like warblers, sparrows, cardinals and chickadees, especially in the spring when birds are raising their young.
“It takes about 6,000 caterpillars to rear one nest of chickadees,” Hegedus-Viola says. “It’s key to have good homes for them in your garden.” Consider having garden beds around the base of trees, so caterpillars have a soft landing and a place to take cover.
“There’s so much about insects we don’t understand – they’re doing so much and are part of the food web,” Hegedus-Viola says. “We need to find ways for nature to thrive in places where humans are.”
Remember: the idea of waiting to clean things up in the spring means you’ve left things behind in your fall garden. Leave perennial plants, stalks, leaves and seed pods in place over the winter. “Plants with seed heads, like echinacea, are great for birds,” says Hegedus-Viola. “And leaving behind the stalks is good for the plant, too. It protects the crown of the plant from rot over the winter.”