Author | Nicole Hostetter
To say it’s been a long winter is an understatement. At times it felt more like eternal winter, for better and for worse. Everything buried under steady snowfall. Fat flakes falling. Small flakes falling. Frozen rain droplets plinking on the glass window panes.
And still, though peacefully enveloped in gray and white, underneath all the snow my yard was doing the important work of engaging in the essential act of dormancy. As was I. All of us, my family and my yard, were working at resting, conserving our energy. Slowing down. Breathing deeply. Preparing for the renewal of warm spring days ahead.
The daffodils are popping up in dense clumps throughout our yard now, and far from dormant, we are busy.
Our fruit trees need pruning. The grapes need training. Old leaves and the dead remnants of last summer’s bounty need to be cleaned from the flower beds. Bushes need to be trimmed. Everything in our yard needs attention so that it can all blossom into its very best self come time.
When we first came to see this house as prospective buyers, I knew it was it before even setting foot inside. Lush stands of flowers spilled out of their beds out front, and mature fruit trees lined the backyard. A grape arbor and berry patch. Asparagus. A towering old oak perfect for climbing. A canopy of shade. Flowering cherry trees outside the bedroom window. I saw all of this, and was reminded of my mom, who had died eight years before. Her gardens were tangles of blooms and greenery, and the hours I spent enveloped in the arms of her thriving juniper branches and tall tiger lilies are too great to count.
My children could have the same here, I thought.
We put an offer in the next day.
But that idealistic love of a garden is not without work, as my husband and I soon learned. Maintaining a beautiful (and healthy) yard requires time and effort, and much of our spring, summer, and fall, are taken up by the acts of fertilizing, pruning, harvesting, watering. Still, what could be better. Doing this work has allowed me to live my life in the seasons, to be connected to what the earth is doing, and therefore follow the natural intuitive pattern of life myself.
I am not an expert, but there are plenty of garden experts in our area to tap into if you have specific questions or need some guidance. We continue to learn as time goes on. But in our three springs here, we have found some chores come up regularly early in the season. As we shake winter off ourselves and begin the act of renewal, here are some of the things we do in our gardens to get ready:
1. Get out the pruning shears
If there is one book I can recommend, it is this one. Pruning Made Easy is a visual guide to how to prune trees. When we got started on our mini orchard, we had no idea what we were doing and it was clear that the trees had not had a healthy pruning in years. Our work was cut out for us. This book helped us know what to do to each tree, and how to do it over the course of a few seasons so as not to injure the trees. Two trees that weren’t producing our first summer (an apple and a sweet cherry) are now prolific fruiters thanks to the shaping and shearing we undertook, and much to our benefit: This past summer we canned about 60 pounds of cherries and more than 30 quarts of applesauce!
It’s best to prune in the winter during dormancy, but it’s not too late now. Just try to get in there before the tree really begins it’s spring growing and budding. As for tools, we couldn’t do this work without our Stanley Fatmax loppers and our Fiskar pruning shears. This set by Fiskar should be a good start for your tool shed. You’ll also want to make sure you have a good heavy-duty shovel, a rake, a box of large contractor bags, and a handsaw or chainsaw, in addition to smaller hand tools like a trowel and shovel. Tools like an edger, hoe, and pickaxe are also nice to have.
2. Rake and clear
Spring finds our yard muddy, colorless, and littered with fallen sticks and branches from heavy winter snow and ice. Collect all the old sticks and use them for summer fires or put them out for large trash pickup in tightly tied bundles. Also now is the time to clear out beds of old dead growth if you haven’t already. We use our Ego hedge trimmers a lot at this time to graze over the beds and cut back everything in one swoop. I used to do the stems in bunches with my hand shears, but this method has proved faster (which is essential with kids complicating the process!) I also use our hedge clippers to cut back our tall ornamental grasses to about 8” (bundling them up first with landscaping twine makes pickup easier).
3. Plan ahead
Harrisonburg is located in zone 6b according to the USDA plant hardiness map. This is helpful to know as we begin planning out our garden for the coming seasons. Around this time, my flower catalogs start rolling in, getting me excited for planting. I’ll often give them to my 4-year-old and tell her to circle one plant on each page she would like for our garden. Of course I don’t order all of these flowers, but it’s a fun activity for her, and it gets me thinking!
This year we plan to embark on trying our hand at dahlias in one of our raised beds. And in addition to our raspberry and blackberry patches, this year we’re also going to do some tilling and plant a small vegetable patch with the veggies we find we’ve had the most success with over the years in our raised beds (which I just can’t get the hang of, and always make too crowded!) - tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, and lettuce.
These are just some of the basics on how we greet spring here in our yard. Everyone’s yard has different needs, and the longer we live in our homes, the better we get to know what those needs are! It’s been a long winter. Dust off your tools, get on your crocs (mine are ten years old and still going strong!), and step out into the sunshine to shake the dormancy off yourself and your yard.