After a weird winter, spring arrived hot and heavy in some parts of the country, producing a crop of confused buds and blooms. Your instinct may be to get out there and start cultivating, but the best thing you can do for your garden is halt – or at least slow down.
Spring isn't going anywhere, but neither are the huge fluctuations in temperature we've seen so far. So take a step back, stay calm and consider these dos and don'ts.
Let nature do its job
Do not get out the leaf blower and blast away at that natural blanket over the garden. Not only does it raise dust and pollutants and stimulate your allergies – if you start skinning the life off your beds, you'll also be topping emerging bulbs.
Stick to the leaves on lawns and paths. Use a big ergonomic rake or a twig broom, if you can find one. The rest of the leaves around trees and on flower beds should be left to break down quickly over the next few weeks. Worms will be pulling them inwards and they will feed the soil, which is what nature intended.
The judicious tidy-up
If you have an atavistic need to remove leaves, apply your clippers to plants such as hellebores. A few species have unattractive foliage at this time of year, so clip them off and toss them in the compost. If anything looks good, leave it alone.
The major mucky-looking plants right now are ornamental grasses. This is a reason to have them carefully placed so as not to become the major visual offence of the season. Cut them all back and toss the detritus in the compost (or use the long stems in dry foliage designs). You'll see the tiny little heads of the new stems; be careful not to nip off the tops.
What you can plant now
If you have the urge to put something in the soil, stick with pansies and seeds that can be sown directly into the ground such as Shirley poppies, which are absolute no-brainers, and just scatter them where you want to plant them. Or stick to the native plants such as common milkweed, purple coneflower and wild lupines (have a look at www.wildflowerfarm.com).
Don't get bugged
With all this lovely weather, insects and fungal diseases, normally killed off by freezing temperatures, have emerged already. It's going to be a bonanza year for both. The first line of defence is to become aware of what these things look like. But keep your hands off toxic chemicals; casual spraying can blast the good insects intended to devour the bad. If things look terrible down the road, use a soap and water concoction and do your best to keep on top of things.
We know already that the lily beetle is leaping to fritillerias, and they are propagating like mad right now. Dugald Cameron of gardenimport.com says to use a teaspoon (5 ml) of pure Neem Oil (sold usually as plant polish), and add a few drops of soap in a litre of warm water and drench the soil around these plants right now. Then once leaves appear, spray with the mix both on the top and bottom every few weeks. And keep on squishing the bugs.
Be water wise
Anomalous weather patterns – evidence of climate change – have affected the ground water supply in many parts of the country. I live on a flood plain, and so far this year it's dead dry. Nor did we have snow during the winter.
If you can see that plants coming up now are in dry areas (definitely check big containers), dump a few buckets of air-temperature water around them. This is when so much damage occurs.
In the long term, of course, we should all be moving toward drought-tolerant gardening. Paul Zammit, horticulturalist with the Toronto Botanical Garden, recommends having rain butts to catch rain water and redirecting roof runoff into the garden. "With the low levels of water in the soil, we will all need to capture extra moisture through water-wise gardening," he says.
David Philips of Environment Canada says that a warm spring doesn't necessarily mean we'll have a desperately hot summer. It seems climate change is all about change. Worry about what you can: Make sure you water deeply as the weather warms up and look to mulching plants carefully at the end of May. The plants that will survive in our gardens are the ones we care for properly.
Marjorie Harris's new book Thrifty Gardening from the Ground Up was published this week. Visit marjorieharris.com for more information.