Be patient, gardeners: Too early to mess with the mulch

March 05, 2013 12:59 pm

A reader recently asked if it was too early to remove winter debris from under trees and shrubs and the answer is a resounding “yes!”

Dead leaves and needles not only provide nutrients as they break down but provide a tremendous amount of protection to sprouting bulbs and young leaves on perennials that have new growth. Don’t tidy your landscaping, at least not yet.

Clearly there is no specific date set for when spring cleaning can safely be done without frost damage to tender new growth, but in our tri-county area, waiting another month, holding off until around the first of April, is advised.

One reader stated “but my mother is cleaning under her shrubs already” and when asked where her mother lived she replied the Willamette Valley. There is a significant difference not only in our growing seasons here but in our ground itself.  

Rarely will you ever find anywhere in the Willamette Valley ground that freezes solid. Yes, it may become firm at times, but that is just the top few inches. It thaws rapidly.

Our ground, and thus all plants, freeze solid each winter so our gardening practices must take this into account. For gardeners new to our area who have traditionally gardened in warmer climates, this could be confusing, especially when the urge to grow, plant and nurture seedlings is strong when the days begin to get longer. An eastside gardener is a patient gardener. The debris under your trees and shrubs needs to remain in place for a while longer. New growth will continue to reach for the light and won’t be hampered by leaves and needles. Be patient!

Now that the first of March is upon us, it’s not too early to start seeds indoors if you have the space.

Good spring crops are peas, lettuce, and members of the kale family, including broccoli and cabbage. If you have an unheated greenhouse or cold frame, keep in mind that most seeds won’t sprout with temperatures constantly below 50-60 degrees. They’ll need bottom heat if you want maximum germination.

I have snow peas blooming right now but they were actually over-wintered in an unheated utility room from volunteer seedlings which sprouted last fall. They stayed green and short all winter long, a month ago they started growing rapidly, no doubt in relation to the longer days, and now there are blossoms open. It was an accidental experiment but with peas blooming in February, I’ll try more of this “accidental” gardening next fall. Sort of like the fall sown lettuce experiment, it works.

If you have vegetable seeds that were sown last fall and they are sprouting now, don’t remove their mulch, there is certain to be more freezing days ahead and they’ll continue to need the protection.

For those who have had bulbs in pots blooming indoors, don’t throw them away after they stop blooming. I’ve noticed that many of the printed instruction recommend throwing these bulbs out after they have been forced to bloom at an unnatural time, please don’t. Simply plant them outside later this spring, it may take them a season or two to recover but they will bloom again. The patient gardener will see this works well, also.

Until next time, enjoy the longer days and watching spring arrive.