Sometimes I look at garden chores as if I'm editing a story. My garden is a visual rendering of an idea I would like to share. If I want to hold on to a certain image or style of garden, I need to do a set of chores to keep that image intact. So I edit the garden by tweaking it back into shape. Mowing a lawn is one simple example. Pruning roses is another. Removing the earliest weeds is also a first step in preparing the garden for spring.
Unfortunately, we are rarely without weeds in the Pacific Northwest. They love the conditions as much as our prize perennials do. At this time of year, when many groundcovers are still in a state of dormancy, flower borders show a lot of soil between plants. In a well-planned garden, these spaces are temporarily filled with the blossoms of early blooming snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils. Opportunistic weeds will surely try to take over these areas whenever they have the chance.
Remove weeds now and you will be cleaning the slate for later blooming bulbs such as Darwin tulips and the decorative onions known as alliums. If you wait until these bulbs begin to emerge from the soil, weed by hand to prevent tearing the bulb's foliage or flower heads. A seasoned Northwest gardener knows that weeding in the midst of a drizzle or light rain makes the job a cinch. Weeds pulled in lightly damp soil will come out easily.
It's also more likely that you will remove the entire weed, including the root system under these conditions. The roots often break away from the stem if you do this job when the plant is packed in dry, clay soil. Shake any excess dirt from the roots and add the weed to this year's compost pile. You can get by without pulling the first weeds of the season but the longer you put it off the more likely your work load will double as weeds make and distribute seed throughout the garden.
The end of March and beginning of April are excellent times to start improving your garden soil. Soil in the Northwest garden has a natural tendency to become more acidic with time. This is a direct result of substantial seasonal rains and the natural cycle of leaf and needle fall from evergreen plants. Acid soil is a soil without lime and a pH of less than 6.5. Spreading lime over the surface of the soil is important for certain types of planting areas such as vegetable gardens.
Do not add lime to beds with any of our acid-loving native plants like rhododendrons, camellias and heathers. Blueberries also like an acid soil and will not thrive if the soil is "sweetened" with lime. You can, however, safely use an organic, all-purpose fertilizer in garden beds or planting areas at the beginning of the season. This is the jump start that plants need for the transition from winter into spring. A label count of 5-5-5 will insure beneficial nutrients for most planting beds.
Our temperatures will continue to become milder as the spring season approaches and the rains begin again in earnest. If the ground is so saturated that you hesitate to begin planting, it is best to wait a while to amend the soil as well. Walking around on wet clay will compact the soil. This makes it difficult for plant roots to take in nutrients. Before digging, take a soil test. This will tell you exactly what the pH levels of your soil are and which amendments will benefit your garden.
While researching soil information, I came across an article written by Carolyn Gordon during her tenure as the WSU Extension Clark County master gardener coordinator. She wrote a comprehensive piece in The Messenger on the value of assessing and improving your garden's soil. Carolyn stated that, "Healthy soil produces healthy plants. And isn't that every gardener's ultimate goal?"
Step outside and confront that ever-expanding list of things to do in the garden this season. Decide which task to perform first and then, the next and the next. We can only do one job at a time, so pick one, go for it and enjoy the process. As for me, all those open spaces in the garden trigger my urge to plant and transplant. It's spring, let the editing begin.
Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at Write2Robb@aol.com.