The garden in spring is supposed to be a place of magic, not the squeaky-clean landscape so beloved by the leaf blowing brigade of hired-gun gardeners. This is not a housekeeping project. If you examine things closely you?ll find that bulbs can get their heads through a thick layer of leaves without damage. But they won?t survive the tugging off of old leaves and mulch once they?ve come above ground. Leaves and mulch provide food for earthworms – the real workers of the garden.

Take up the big loose stuff (junk from trees), and mess left over from last fall (large leaves of hostas). Aim for a natural look with a blanket of leaves as a background to show off plants. As I?ve said before you don?t see any little elves nipping about the woods cleaning up the mess. As long as the ground is moist it?s the perfect time to winkle out weeds-if you can which green things they are. Leave alone anything you?re not sure of. It will inevitably turn out to be something precious you put in last fall.


Tools cannot go into the garden dirty. They will get sticky with sap from plants very quickly at this time of year. Use the finest grade steel wool to sharpen spades, shovels and secateurs. Then wipe off with carburetor cleaner. Rub again with steel wool and wipe with a clean cloth. Keep doing this on a regular basis.

Ratchet pruners are cheap ($10 to $12) and easy to use although a little dangerous because they do such a good job so quickly you find yourself prowling around the garden like some marauding angel snipping things off to a fare-thee-well. Use a little caution.


You can usually prune early even if you can?t plant early. The wisteria here has already been pruned to keep the main form intact, and cut back from two to four buds from the main stems. I?ve had three blooms in 32 years but I live in hope of cascades of them – maybe this year.

  • The one rule of pruning: it takes about three months for a plant to set flower buds after you?ve cut it.
  • Wait until after spring blooming plants have done their stuff to prune out anything but dead stuff. On most plants take out a third which does not mean shearing a third of the plant off from the outside. It means removing about one-third of the worst-shaped twigs and branches and letting light into the centre.
  • Coppice any plants (spirea for instance) which tend to get ignored and have become unruly. Coppicing means cutting the whole plant within a few inches of the ground and then maintaining it for shape in future.
  • Vines: Cut back clematis such as the Viticella and jackmanii hybrids, autumn flowering forms to about a foot from the ground (in warmer parts of the country it should have been done by now). Tidy up spring flowering ones after they?ve bloomed. Remove dead material from other vines. Cut back Hydrangea petiolaris only after it has flowered.
  • Shrubs such as elders can be cut back severely to keep colour and shape. Take out weak or damaged branches on hydrangeas which bloom on old wood – hard pruning will result in fewer but larger blooms. Whack Lavatera ?Barnsley? right to the base when the first shoots are popping. Leave silver shrubs such as artemisias, caryopteris, lavenders and perovskia for another week.
  • Let trees such as birch and maple alone until much later in the season. They are bleeders and you?ll be doing them harm.
  • Cut out the dead material on roses and pull back any mulch. Then plant a clove of garlic beside each plant to keep fungal diseases at bay. Sprinkle a little epsom salts around the perimeter of the plant to add potassium to the soil.
  • Get a good pruning manual: Cavendish Encyclopaedia of Pruning & Training, by Christopher Brickell, David Joyce. Cavendish books, Vancouver, $40, is easy to follow.


Before popping in annuals wait the soil is warm enough so that it doesn?t turn the hand numb to the elbow. Pansies are ideal for current conditions: warmish days and cool nights. They will carry on for months with some careful deadheading. Waiting until May 24th to plant perennials is, to my mind, too late given our short growing season. If you know the various microclimates in your garden you can do all sorts of planting before the 24th – depending on your area of course.

  • Plant woody perennials such as herbs, shrubs and small trees once the soil is warmed up. Be sure to dig holes wider than they are deep. There should be as much native soil as possible in the hole so roots don?t go into shock when they expand. You really shouldn?t have to put any thing into the soil except some coarse sand if it?s heavy clay. Water deeply and then mulch. Don?t let mulch get near stems and trunks it will rot them.
  • Very hardy perennials can go in now but wait for a few weeks before putting in tender perennials and most annuals.
  • Plant annuals near the yellowing foliage of bulbs to disguise them.


It?s time to get out the containers and all the paraphernalia most of us didn?t really clean up particularly well last autumn. It has to be done now anyway is my theory.

  • Wash out pots with water and then rinse with a very, very mild borax solution (a tablespoon to a bucket of water) to kill off unfriendly microbes, then re-rinse.
  • The only thing you really need to ready a container is a piece of broken clay over the bottom hole; or some twigs you?ve cut up from debris in the garden; or one or two of the plastic six-packs you get from the nursery with annuals. You can also cover the drainage hole with landscape cloth to keep soil from leaching out.
  • Make up your own mix of soil. I use a third each of bagged topsoil, cocofibre and container soil (it?s lighter, contain vermiculite and perlite which will help with water retention). Don?t use soil from the garden. Let each container be its own new environment.

Soil Amending

Apart from leaves, compost and manure, most soil doesn?t need much else to be really healthy. Install enough plants native to the area along with anything else you fancy. Just keep it mixed. Biodiversity will attract good bugs and birds. Habitat is the word. Using highly toxic herbicides and insecticides will not only kill off the pests, they also destroy the good ones as well and run the risk of accumulating in the ground water

  • Clay soil: Instead of buying expensive triple mix to add to the soil to bump it up, try a mix of coarse concrete sand and fine brick sand. Just cover the surface around plants and it will percolate its way down. This will add nutrients and lighten up the soil. Most of us don?t need to supply more clay (which triple mix will do) and it?s going to make the plants a lot happier. Add the same sandy mix to the bottom of the hole when you put in new trees and shrubs to help with the drainage. Earthworms will do the rest of the work.
  • Sandy soil: to stabilize the soil, leave any snags (bits of tree branches and trunks) and stumps which will break down slowly adding organic material to the soil. If grubs are a huge problem you might have to let grass dry out since they like moisture. If you are putting in vegetables, till deeply and leave grubs exposed for birds to pick out. Then get in for some really good hand squishing.


Mulching can be done after bulbs have pretty much finished. Add a layer of cocofibre, compost and manure mixed equally together and spread it around the garden. This will keep weeds from growing and be a haven for slugs which can then be picked out by hand and crushed to death. Don?t let mulch touch the crowns of perennials or the stems and trunks of woody plants

The Nursery

Never walk in and say ?Tell me about perennials (or annuals or shrubs).? The topic overwhelms any help no matter how experienced they are. Do some research and be specific.

  • Don?t ask them to design your garden. Get a good book or take a course.
  • Take a shopping list on the first time out. Personally I go in and dart all over the place getting anything new. But this is not a good system unless you know what you?re doing and can accommodate quixotic choices.
  • By knowing how many hours of light are available in any given part of your garden, you?ll read a label with some expertise. When it says full sun (more than six hours a day) this is probably what the plant requires. Part sun means less than six hours a day. Part shade means four hours of sun a day. Shade usually means dappled shade and deep shade means that area on the north side of the house where the sun doesn?t shine.
  • Put labels back very carefully. It drives nursery people and the poor sod who comes along later crazy when things are mis-labelled. And read them carefully – a lot of what you need is right there.

Great Little Instruments

  • It sounds daft but I couldn?t do without my children?s wooden rake. It can get into inconvenient spots and drag out debris better than anything else I own. Soak before first using.
  • Transplanting trowel: this has a long dish and will sniggle in between other plants if you want to pop something into a tight space.
  • Secateurs with movable handles. If you?ve ever had tendonitis get this one. It helps.

Lee Valley has the cheapest ratchet pruners I?ve seen and they are great.

Hiring Help

  • If you decide to take on a gardener because things are overwhelming, use the following as a litmus test: Ask what he or she considers a good fertilizer and a mulch. If the answer to the first is peat moss move on quickly to someone else. Peat moss is a sterile medium that will suck the moisture out of the soil. If they don?t know or understand about mulching get someone who does.
  • Use people who work during the early part of the day. By 4 p.m. most professional gardeners are exhausted.
  • Make sure they know the difference between a weed and a perennial.
  • Don?t let them use leaf blowers – not only are they noise and air polluters, you need those leaves for the compost