Can it be possible that we are going to skate through this La Nina winter and get an early spring? That would be nice, but I’ve lived here long enough to know winter isn’t over until its over. I’ve stood in a plant nursery hanging tags on trees in a blinding snowstorm the last day of March. However, we do have a break in the weather, and the ground is thawed so we can get started on some early garden chores.
We’ve had an unusual number of heavy wet snows this year, and it brought down quite a few branches. Most of them can just be picked up and dealt with but if you have a hanging limb it might be better to call in a professional to take it down and trim the tree so that it stays healthy. I speak from experience that standing on a ladder with a chain saw is a really good way to get hurt. Fortunately for me the saw only skipped over my finger when the ladder slipped.
This is a good time to thin and prune overgrown shrubs except for rhododendrons and lilacs. Spend a little time on the internet researching the proper way to prune the shrubs you have. In general, start your thinning by removing rubbing branches and tangles of small branches. This will open up the plant, so you can see its structure. If you have a multistemmed shrub, consider taking out two or three of the oldest branches to encourage new growth. Old branches will often be the thickest stems and have rough, gray brown bark. If the shrub is encroaching on its neighbors, cut the offending branches to the ground.
Rhododendrons and lilacs are best pruned immediately after they finish blooming when their growth cycle starts. Prune the tallest rhododendron branches down deep in the canopy. This will leave the shrubs looking like nothing had been done to them. Lilacs are best pruned over a two to three-year period and need to be pruned within two weeks of the end of their blooms. The first year, prune two to three of the oldest branches to the ground. Then head back the remaining tall branches. Trim off the spent flower heads just above the two, emerging buds below the flower. The next year remove a couple more of the branches. The plant will fill in with new growth.
It’s still too wet to do any digging or moving of plants but it isn’t too early to check for weeds like chickweed, bulbous bluegrass or shotweed. Pull out those you find and cover the area with a couple of inches of mulch to keep more from sprouting. If you didn’t get the last of your fall leaf and needle raking done get that finished and use the rakings as mulch. Don’t start uncovering plants you mulched in last fall just yet, we could still get some cold weather. If you are tempted to trim roses, don’t. Leave them alone until April.
Spokane Valley resident Pat Munts is co-author of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook” with Susan Mulvihill. She can be reached at pat@ inlandnwgardening.com.