The perennial truth

To water or not to water in Calgary’s early spring, that is the question

Perennial plants close to buildings were popping up in the heat wave a couple weeks ago, but my shovel clunked into ice just below the surface.

It reminded me winter is still transitioning into spring in Calgary. Our mild winter with yo-yo temperatures and light snow cover makes it both tricky for outdoor plants and stressful for gardeners such as Marilyn Brown, who was worried about her Columnar Blue Spruce and wanted to know if she should water it.

“It is between houses, on the east side of our house, on a sloping area. The wind whips by, blowing the snow off,” she said. “We tried to make a little retaining wall below it to level the site, which seems to be working. I have not done much to protect it in the winter, except I throw snow over it when I can. This year is much dryer than others since it was planted (in 2009).”

Marilyn’s query was simple: she wanted permission to water.

Water, however, warms soil and melts frost, so I gave her the task of sticking her hand or a shovel into the soil first. After some back-and-forth emails, I discovered her soil was not only thawed but dry and dusty, so she went ahead and watered her tree. The next step for Brown is to protect the soil surface from drying out again by spreading 10 centimetres of wood mulch on the soil around the tree.

And, what about perennials poking up? Just ignore them until at least mid-April. If the ground is watered too soon in a warm south-facing site, plants will seriously start to grow. I’m a gardener, not a weather forecaster or mystic, but I know a cold snap will take out the lush blooms forced to grow by early watering.

It is a tricky time of year – not quite winter, not quite spring. Gardeners will have to water special evergreens gently if the soil is dry and dusty, but it isn’t time to get raking lawns or setting up sprinklers. Moving snow — a little activity I call snow harvesting — is what Brown has wisely done and will continue to do if we get more snow.

In the outdoor garden, snow harvesting or mulching is the best seasonal activity for outdoor beds and trees in late March. It helps you hold on to that bit of winter that makes our lives easier.

Water or not, it is looking a lot like spring.

Donna Balzer is a garden writer and entertaining speaker. Check out her blog at www.gardenguru.net or follow her on twitter @NoGuffGardener.

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