University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Spring Article


Charlie Nardozzi, Chairman of the Board of Directors
Vermont Botanical Garden, and
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Preparing vegetable beds with compost, dividing rhubarb, mulching trees, and lawn care are some of the activities for this month as the busy gardening season rapidly approaches.

Once the snow melts, you may start to see damage from road salt on your lawns. Grass may appear as if burned.  To help flush the salt from the soil, water the lawn near roads and walkways several times, especially during dry periods. This will help move the salt down into the subsoil. Once this salt is removed, then you can begin to prepare the thin spots in the lawn for reseeding.

Even though lawns don't appear to be growing this month, the roots often become active during the last half.  Then is a good time to apply lawn fertilizer, as the roots will take it up,  making it available when the grass leaves begin to grow soon.

If your rhubarb plants seem crowded, plan to divide them as soon as the ground thaws. Choose a cloudy, cool day.  Dig up the whole crown, and break off the young side shoots, trying to keep as many roots intact as possible. Transplant the mother plant back in the original hole amended with a shovelful of compost, and plant the babies in a full sun location. Harvest the young plants lightly, if at all, the first year.

If new shoots of your pear, apple, or hawthorn are blackened as though they were burned, that's a sign of fire blight disease. This bacterial disease, if severe, can eventually kill your trees. To control it, prune off infected areas several inches below the damage. Dip your pruners in a 10% bleach solution between pruning cuts to avoid spreading the disease to other trees.

Mulching helps conserve moisture and inhibit weeds around trees.  Mulch also may be a good choice in deep shade where grass grows poorly.  Around trunks, mulch will help fend off damage from close mowing and weed trimmers! Organic materials such as pine needles, shredded leaves, and milled bark add organic matter back to the soil as they decompose.

Don't let the mulch layer get too deep under trees. Ideally, the mulch should be about 2 inches deep. Any deeper and it can smother shallow roots. If necessary, remove old mulch before applying new material. Also, avoid piling mulch against the tree trunk, because this can cause fungal problems on the trunk.

Check compost piles and add finished compost to vegetable beds before planting, and apply it around perennials. Finished compost will be dark and earthy-smelling, and will have few recognizable bits left in it. Adding compost is the single best thing you can do for your plants, so be generous!

When applying compost or mulch around perennials though, do just that, place it around the plants not on them.  Mulching too deeply will kill shallow-rooted perennials such as yarrow and tickseed.  I often wait until I see shoots and new growth before mulching.

Other tips for this month include buying an Easter lily or other spring flowering potted plants such as primroses to bring some early color indoors.  Primroses are nice in that many you'll find will be hardy when planted outdoors.  If tools got rusty over the winter, soak in white vinegar to remove the rust.  Then sharpen with files, available at complete garden stores or through catalogs, just for this purpose.  Get hummingbird feeders ready the end of the month to welcome these travelers back from their long journey south over winter.

Return to Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles