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Early Spring Do’s and Don’ts

It has been an early spring here in Southeastern Wisconsin. Probably a good 2 weeks ahead of the average by our reckoning.

Here at the nursery, we have averages to compare the weather with. The big one is when we uncover the overwintered plants from year to year. Our average to uncover is the beginning of April, with shipment to begin the 2nd or 3rd week of April.  This year, we’ve been shipping plants since the beginning of April.

For most folks there is no marker to say that spring is breaking early. The sun is shining and warm so it must be time to plant, RIGHT?!! Wrong.

Not to say you can’t plant properly prepared perennials in early spring when the ground is still cold. We will get to that in a moment. However, there is lots to do in the yard before it is time to start planting.

Here we start with a few DON’Ts, since they are very important for gardening success.

  1. Don’t walk on or dig in wet soil. That includes PLANTING, even if what you want to plant has been properly hardened off. Walking or digging can compact the soil, which smothers plant roots. Wait until the soil has thawed all the way down and water is draining freely before digging or walking on any part of the yard or garden.
  2. Don’t prune certain trees. Maples, elms and birches, have sap that is flowing in early spring. The cuts from pruning will “bleed” with sap. It looks awful and attracts diseases and insects. Oaks are vulnerable to infections through pruning wounds, too. The best time to prune these trees is in winter when they are dormant and leafless. (See below for trees you can prune in spring)
  3. Don’t clean up too much. Fallen leaves on garden beds protect plants from hard freezes (common in March and April and even later)
  4. Don’t mow, fertilize or treat the lawn. Let grass grow for a few weeks before you work on it. Wait until mid to late April to apply pre-emergent herbicides that prevent crabgrass.
  5. DON’T PLANT TENDER ANNUALS and VEGETABLES! This includes things like tomatoes and other tropical vegetable plants, warm season herbs (like basil) and annuals that can’t take any frost.  These plants come from warm areas of the world, where they are seldom exposed to frost and may be damaged or die if exposed to cold temperatures, even in the 40’s. They also need warm soil (60 degrees) in order to grow. Planting them when the soil is only in the 30’s or 40’s will stunt or kill these tender plants. Just because they are available in the stores does not mean it is appropriate to plant them.


So, what CAN you do in early Spring in the garden or yard? Just like preparing walls correctly for painting is extremely important for good results, there is lots to do before planting season arrives.

  1. When the soil has dried out…clean up the flower beds. Remove excess protective winter mulch, leaving some to act as protection from freeze and to feed the soil. Cut back the dead, dried foliage from ornamental grasses and perennials. Dead leaf those plants that are semi-evergreen, such as Heuchera (Coral Bells). Wear garden gloves to protect your hands from cuts and scrapes.
  2. Divide perennials. Before spring growth begins is a good time to take care of this garden chore and fill your garden with more plants or share with friends. Dividing perennial clumps encourages new growth.
  3. Add fresh compost to your garden beds and mulch around trees and other woodies. This helps the soil to retain moisture and cuts down on weeds. What is the difference between compost and wood mulch? Compost is deteriorated green material such as lawn grass, weeds that are not diseased or gone to seed and dead leaves from fall and even kitchen scraps. (No meats, bones, fat or dairy, please!) Using compost adds nutrients to the soil, prevents weeds and retains moisture. It does not promote rotting of perennials as bark or wood mulch can easily do. Wood Chips or Mulch is created when tree debris is recycled by running wood through a chipper. Bark Mulch is created by scraping bark off fallen or cut trees. Trees and shrubs can handle these types of mulch without rotting off if they are not placed right on the crown or next to the trunk.
  4. Do prune these trees and shrubs. Prune fruit trees before buds begin to break into bloom, and summer blooming trees and shrubs before they push out new growth.  Prune spring blooming trees and shrubs AFTER they are done blooming.
  5. Check your hardscaping for frost heaves in paths and edging. Check the condition of your deck or patio and make repairs. Clean off outdoor furniture so it is ready to use after a busy day in the garden.
  6. Plant cool-season veggies, like potatoes, artichoke, peas, lettuces and kohl (cole) crops like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages and kale.
  7. Clean bird feeders. While some folks take down their feeders for the season, there may not be enough food for the birds to find yet. Early spring is a good time to take down your bird feeders, wash them out and fill with fresh seed for the birds returning in the spring.


Mid-spring in Wisconsin is usually the end of April to mid-May. Here are more things to do! This is the fun stuff….

  1. Now is the time to start adding hardened off perennials and cold-hardy annuals to the garden! Yeah!!!! Most perennials enjoy the cool temperatures of spring and do best when planted before the heat of summer sets in. For some quick color, cool season annuals such as pansies or violas and snapdragons can be planted in the garden or in containers.
  2. Add new trees and shrubs. These can be planted as soon as the frost is out of the ground. Planting early gives them a chance to get their roots down before hot summer temperatures are here.


Between the time of the 3 Ice Men (or Ice Saints) in mid-May and Memorial Day planting can begin in earnest.  Now is the time to plant those tender annuals and herbs. Still keep an eye out for cold temps until after Memorial Day.

And remember to deadhead spring bulbs that are done blooming. But don’t forget to leave the foliage to go dormant on its own schedule and replenish the energy of the bulb for next years show.

So, while everyone wants to get their hands in the soil in spring, timing is important for gardening success! A little patience and preparation sets the table for a productive and enjoyable summer in your yard and garden.