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Gardening tips for a cold spring

April has been colder and wetter than usual, which has gardeners feeling restless. While it’s not too early to complete a few garden tasks despite the cold and dreary weather, others should be left for warmer days ahead.

Keep pollinators in mind

Black bee with gold pollen on white flower with yellow center. Leaves in the background.
A native bee forages on Minnesota native ephemeral bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).

Support pollinators that overwinter in leaf litter and stems. Leaves and stems from past seasons can be important habitats for pollinators.

Leaves left on the ground provide important insulation for bees hibernating underground and for moths and butterflies that overwinter in the leaves. Leaving your leaves where they are until temperatures are above 50 degrees F for five consecutive days will give most of those hibernating pollinators the protection that they need.

Bees that nest in stems may not emerge until mid-June or later. It is best for the bees to leave the stems where they are. New growth will soon cover them, any bees nesting in the stems will emerge, and the old stems will decompose.

If you want to remove past seasons' stems from your garden before mid-June, find a place to safely stash the cut stems until the bees that might be nesting in them have a chance to emerge. Come midsummer, you can safely compost these stems. When you do cut stems back, leave about 12 inches of stem standing to create nesting habitat for this summer's bees.

Bumble bee perched on a yellow daisy-like flower with green leaves.
Choose native flowering plants like this late-blooming false sunflower when planning your pollinator garden.

When you are shopping for plants this year, make it a point to choose plants that benefit our insect pollinators. Garden centers typically label plants that benefit pollinators, but if you want to get started on a list of your own, see Flowers for pollinators for plant lists and resources. Here are some tips when choosing plants:

  • Look for and study pollinators in your landscape. Keep track of the plants they visit.
  • Select plants with growing needs that match your site conditions (light, space, soil type, etc.)
  • Choose native plants to ensure pollen and nectar rewards are optimal for bees.
  • Create a diverse garden with lots of flower colors, plant sizes, shapes and forms, and bloom times.
  • Don’t forget about early spring and late fall-blooming plants. Hardy spring bulbs and late blooming native plants are important for pollinators that overwinter here.

Early spring in the vegetable garden

Situated along a brown house, a rectangular wood box with clear lid slightly ajar and plants inside.
A cold frame helps acclimate seedlings that will eventually be planted in the garden.

If you have some open space in your garden and have not done so already, now is the time to plant peas, lettuce, Brassicas, spinach, chard, and other cool-season crops.

Check the DNR’s last frost date map to get the average last frost date for your area. When the threat of frost has passed, you can begin to plant warm-season vegetables and herbs. For sensitive crops like tomatoes and peppers, it’s generally best to wait until the soil has warmed to around 60 degrees F.

Using a row cover is a great way to provide some extra warmth, speed up growth, and exclude early-season insect pests like flea beetles. This is also a great time to build a low tunnel or a cold frame. Read our recent article about extending the growing season to learn more.

Early season lawn care

A lawn with white clover and purple self-heal flowers.
Clover and self-heal are good pollinator food for bee lawns.

Wear and tear on lawns is worse when soil is wet and temperatures are on the cooler side. Hold off on lawn care until the soil and grass dry out for a healthy lawn later this year.

Timing will vary from property to property as well as between areas within a single yard. If a lawn area faces south, it will dry out faster than a lawn facing north. Likewise, a sloped area will also dry out quicker because gravity pulls water down into the slope, leaving the top of the slope drier.

This year, many people will have to contend with dead areas of lawn thanks to the extreme drought and heat of 2021. Select seed that suits your growing conditions (full sun, part sun, etc.). Once the soil has dried out, a seed and topsoil mix can be put down in bare areas or you can apply a patch product (a mix of grass seed and pulpy carrier with fertilizer.) Keep these areas moist and your seed will soon germinate.

Consider turning those bare areas into bee lawn. Information on how to do this can be found on Planting and maintaining a bee lawn.

Lawn care timing questions? Visit our Minnesota Lawn Care Calendar. Hint: Fall is the preferred time for most lawn care.

Tree planting and care in spring

Light green bunches of flowers on branches without leaves.
Sugar maple in spring

Cool temperatures and spring rain provide ideal conditions for tree and shrub establishment. This time of the year is great for planting dormant nursery stock including plants purchased bare-root, containerized, container-grown, and balled and burlapped.

Without active growth that needs to be supported, newly planted trees and shrubs that are dormant can focus energy on growing new roots and becoming established. Avoid purchasing and planting nursery stock that has significantly leafed out before the risk of frost has passed.

Spring is also a good time of year to ensure the other trees and shrubs in your landscape have sufficient mulch. A layer of wood chips or bark mulch spread two to three inches thick under the dripline of your plant is all you need. Just make sure not to pile the mulch against the trunk of the plant. Leave four inches between the trunk and the mulch.

More information can be found on Planting and transplanting trees and shrubs.

Authors: Natalie Hoidal, Extension vegetable crops and local foods educator; Julie Weisenhorn, Extension horticulture educator; Elaine Evans, Extension native bee specialist; and Brandon Miller, Extension horticulture specialist

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