8 Mistakes To Avoid When Prepping Your Garden For Spring

Gardeners, beware.

person works on garden in preparation for the springtime

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Anyone else getting antsy to get out and about in the garden? Depending on where you live, your plant center might already be drawing a weekend crowd eager to get their hands dirty and set their garden aglow. But, if you really want to ensure success, there are some things you should know about springtime gardening before you grab your sunhat and trowel. 

“The cooler months of spring are the perfect time to start seeds, get new shrubs established, and do the heavy lifting your garden projects need before that brutal Southern summer sun kicks in, says Jim Putnam, Expert for Southern Living Plant Collection and founder/host of HortTube. “From cutting back dead and diseased foliage to giving the mulch in your beds a refresh, doing a little ‘spring cleaning’ in the yard in February and March not only makes a visible improvement, but sets you up for success all season long.” 

If you’re strictly prepping (no pruning or planting) then you can have at it as soon as weather allows, but if you’re ready to start digging, there’s plenty to know before you head out there. Don’t let your garden dreams fall flat before they have a moment in the sun by committing one of these springtime-gardening no-nos. 

Avoiding Repairs

Even if it’s not quite as warm (or dry) as you might hope, the weather shouldn’t get in the way of getting out in the garden to make necessary repairs. “Mend any broken fences and damaged raised beds as soon as weather permits,” says Angelo Randaci, Earth’s Ally horticulturalist. “Check irrigation and hoses for leaks and make sure they are working properly.” He also suggests using the weeks prior to planting season to work on any hardscaping projects that might be lingering. With this strategy, you’ll have all the prep work finished ahead of time so you can put your full attention on planting when the time comes. 

Skipping the Dirty Work

If you’ve been mulching over mulch for years, let this be the season you say goodbye to that ill-advised practice that can result in what’s referred to as matted mulch. “Matted mulch tends to repel water keeping moisture from reaching the roots of your plants,” warns Randaci. “It can also harbor pests, mold, and fungi.” Instead he suggests breaking it up to work into the top layer of soil or moving it to your compost bin or pile. Stick to fresh mulch for conserving moisture in the soil and suppressing weeds. 

Another process we love to hate: weeding. And, like removing spent mulch, it might be tempting to ignore the issue. Unfortunately that will just exasperate the problem. “Do not wait to pull weeds in your garden that were either left from last year or newly sprouted,” says Randaci. He advises treating weeds with a safe herbicide or pulling before letting them go to seed. “When it comes to perennial weeds such as bindweed, thistles, and nutsedge, make sure to dig out the whole root system because any root remnants can re-generate,” he warns. 

Not Adding Soil Amendments

There are plenty of ways to go wrong when it comes to making sure your soil is properly suited for the busy season(s) ahead, but not being mindful of what you’re sowing is perhaps the most egregious of errors. “Have your soil tested with either a home soil test or take it to your county extension office to check for any deficiencies, especially if you had any growing issues last season,” suggests Randaci. 

If your soil has deficiencies that can be taken care of with fertilizer, make sure to take stake of the plant that will be benefiting before you start amending. “In general, don’t fertilize when a plant is sick,” warns Putnam. “When a plant is already stressed, fertilizer can burn or damage the plant.” You’ll also want to do your research on your plant’s specific needs, which can vary greatly from plant to plant. While the tag your plant came with at the time of purchase might have prescribed the best fertilizer, you can also check with your local garden center or extension office for the ideal formula for your plant and climate.  

One of the easiest ways to get your plants off to a growing start is to stash away kitchen scraps. Randaci suggests either recycling them into a compost pile or burying the scraps in a process known as trench composting

Premature Pruning

While springtime pruning can work for some plants that bloom on new wood, there are certain varieties that should be left alone until after blooms appear. “You’ll want to take special care and avoid cutting off newly forming flower buds while pruning,” says Putnam. Loropetalums, gardenias, and pieris aren’t suited for a springtime prune, and the same can be said of rhododendrons, forsythias, and azaleas which all form their buds on last year’s wood. “The beautiful blooms they produce for you in spring will be your reward for waiting,” he says. 

Trimming up your trees and eliminating dead branches is certainly a best practice, but ensure you’re waiting until the worst of the winter weather has subsided before getting out the loppers. “Sometimes, brown and dry foliage remains on the branches after a bad freeze,” says Putnam. “Even though it may not look appealing, these dry leaves provide some cold protection to the plant, so don’t prune or remove them until the threat of frost has passed.” 

Impulse Buying

It’s hard to condone an impulse buy, though there are some exceptions to the rule (the vintage lamp you scored for $20 at an estate sale, for instance). That being said, the garden is one place where a pause and lots of planning can work wonders. “Carefully chosen plants will thrive in your garden, while randomly purchased plants can easily succumb to the wrong growing conditions,” says Randaci. “Take into consideration where you will place your plants, the bloom season and ultimate size before your garden center visit.” He also advises thinking about your objective, such as whether you’re looking to attract pollinators, grow a cutting garden, create a border, etc. “Remember, ‘right plant, right place,’” he says. 

Being a Passive Planter

It's not all bad news for the eager gardeners. You certainly don’t want to let your spring fever get the best of you too early and start planting annuals before the last frost, but there are certain plants that do require a jump on planting season. “Plants like hydrangeas, heucherellas, and agapanthus need to be established relatively early in spring so that they have time to acclimate to their new homes before the hottest days of summer hit,” advises Putnam. Other plants like Miss Lemon™ Abelia can be planted year-round as long as the ground is thawed and they’re acclimated to your weather. After the final frost (or the area’s last average frost date), Putnam suggests planting varieties that thrive in the Southeast climate like lavender, salvia, and lantana. 

Not Protecting Your Plants

When prepping a garden for spring, the best offense is a great defense. “Young plants are vulnerable to deer, rabbits, and local critters,” says Randaci. “Chicken wire, bird netting, row covers, or other materials can be placed over or around young plants to give them a good start.” Once the plants are thoroughly established, sturdy, and of substantial size, you can remove the barriers as they’ll be ready and able to fend for themselves.  

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