Getting your garden in shape for spring

by Jan Spann

As the New Year rolls in, fitness center memberships burgeon and diet promises ensue after the hungry holidays. But in the midst of New Year’s resolutions, don’t forget that your garden can use a fitness plan as well.

If you haven’t already, start a garden journal. Fill a three-ring binder with wide-ruled paper for your notes and graph paper for garden plans. Tabbed dividers will separate planting times and chores by month. Vinyl pouches hold labels, seed packets and clippings as you browse magazines and catalogs.

The winter landscape offers you an excellent view of your garden’s “bones,” the basic structure of trees and shrubs that stand when all the color and frills are dormant. Are there areas where shrubs and understory trees can offer more year-round interest? Fringe tree and native shrubs like itea and witch alder have attention-drawing traits. My oakleaf hydrangeas bring rich burgundy and browns in winter, followed by green panicles in early spring that blossom into elegant white blooms through the summer.

The Missouri Botanical Gardens is a great resource for what works in our central Arkansas environment (and it’s an inspiring destination for a St. Louis visit). On its website, you’ll find several suggestions –

Consider your tools. If you didn’t give them an “end of summer” cleaning, now is the time to do so before you start the spring garden work. Not only do they last longer, but clean tools also keep weed seeds and diseases from being spread around the garden. Make a New Year’s resolution to scrub your hoes, spades, shears and trowels after each use this year, followed by drying with a cotton rag and a thin coating of motor oil.

Add some compost or composted manure to your soil (you’ve started composting, haven’t you?). Work in a little of each by placing them around perennials and scratching it into the soil with a hand fork or hoe. These two slow-acting organic fertilizers will break down over the winter to give the soil added nutrients.

Don’t forget to water trees, shrubs, evergreens and woody plants during these winter months. If there’s a January thaw during a dry winter, that’s also a good time to get out the hose and water. Except for spring bloomers, prune out shrub and tree limbs that cross or brush against one another. This is also a good time to prune back ornamental grasses to about six inches above soil line.

You can still plant trees or shrubs. Cooler weather slows the top growth of trees and shrubs, but roots continue to inch through the soil seeking moisture and anchoring the plant to its new location until the ground freezes solid. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, healthy, mature trees add an average of 10 percent to a property’s value and have a net cooling effect equivalent to 10 room-size air conditioners operating 20 hours a day per tree.

Hopefully, you have allowed the autumn leaves to provide mulch for your gardens. Use the warmer winter days to prepare new beds by pushing the leaves aside and turning the soil if needed. February is the time to cut back ornamental grasses and vines and prune roses. For more information, go to

If you’re planning to start a vegetable or herb garden, determine when to plant. Here’s one of several sites to help: Note the seed start times in the monthly tabs of your garden journal.

You don’t need fancy equipment to start those seeds indoors, so consider these ideas. Cut empty toilet paper rolls in half or paper towel rolls into quarters and place in a shallow container. Fill each with soil, plant the seeds and water as needed. These containers can be placed into the garden at the appropriate time and are biodegradable. It’s a great project to consider for your kids to monitor the magic of nature!

Another thing you can do is save newspapers and magazines for garden use. When you want to expand a garden area – like switching from sod to garden – lay down the papers and magazines. One width is a manageable expansion for the casual gardener. Cover with play sand, and the winter rains will help kill the grass and weeds, making it more ready for spring plantings. The paper degrades as the sand mixes with clay soil, and the result is a nice loamy plot. Nothing kills Bermuda grass, but this gives you a fair shot at it!

So even though our gardens may seem dormant during these winter months, you can find plenty of ways to get your garden healthy and energized for the spring!