Gardening jobs to do in the garden this spring
The winter to spring transition is a key time to prep your garden for the year ahead. To avoid a minefield of mistakes, below are some top do’s and don’ts to get started. I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing in gardening is difficult – but it can seem confusing. It’s one rule for one plant, a different rule for others.
My main piece of advice is that if you’re unsure, don’t. An incorrectly chopped branch cannot be stuck back on. Although, now I say it, there was the time I superglued a branch back on to our Araucaria heterophylla and it survived. Different plants, different rules.
Before taking leap in the dark, read about each plant (rhs.org.uk) or ask an expert. Many specialist nurseries will also be happy to help.
Gardening tips for spring 2023
Chillies, peppers, onions and aubergines all benefit from being started from seed now, in the warmth inside, because they are slow to get going. Sow into compost in seed trays using a heated propagator on a sunny windowsill, and pot on into individual 7cm pots when they have four leaves (or three for onions).
All other seeds can wait until days are longer and temperatures warmer, otherwise seedlings will grow weak and leggy, and hog space while they’re waiting to go outside. Check the last frost date in your area and start sowing four to six weeks before that.
Do prune apples and pears before spring
Apples and pears need pruning while dormant. Remove dead, damaged, diseased or obviously rubbing branches first, or any growing into the centre of the crown. Cut back main shoots at the ends of branches by a third and new side shoots to about 20cm long (the length of secateurs), cutting at a new upward growing point.
Don’t prune cherries and plums until summer
Stone fruits don’t heal well at all, least of all while dormant, leaving cuts vulnerable to disease. If you really have to prune them – and it’s best not to – wait until the hottest months of midsummer when the risk of fungal disease is low and wounds dry faster.
Do prune (later-flowering shrubs)
Buddleia, elderflower (Sambucus), shrub roses and dogwood (Cornus) can all be pruned now while dormant, as can evergreen mahonia after flowering. For dogwood, remove the oldest stems at the base to encourage new shoots.
The other shrubs can take any amount of hacking you throw at them, but the strategy I follow is to hard prune to 30-60cm depending on how tall you’d like them to grow this year.
Don’t prune (early-flowering shrubs)
Leave lilac, deutzia, forsythia and philadelphus alone until after flowering in early summer. You might notice the pattern here with shrubs – pruning is largely based around flowering time to avoid cutting off buds before they have a chance to open.
Early-flowering shrubs tend to be pruned just after flowering in summer, removing a third of stems (the oldest) and leaving young stems for next year’s flowers. Usually remove at the base but do check for each type on the RHS website.
Do start chitting potatoes
Order seed potatoes and pop them into a tray on a windowsill with the barely visible buds (called eyes) facing upwards. They’ll be ready to plant outside in April.
Don’t plant out onion sets
Order onion sets (baby onion bulbs) now, but wait to plant them until after the last frost – this is typically around mid-March in the South and April in the North.
Do repair sheds
After taking a battering in winter, now is a good time to check and repair shed roofs and to give a new lick of preservative or paint.
Don’t disturb compost heaps until spring
All manner of wildlife will be hiding in your compost heap until the warmer months. You may even have a hibernating hedgehog. For this reason, it is best not to touch them until the weather heats up in spring.
Do coppice or pollard hazel
Hazel is excellent for producing your own bean poles and pea sticks for use in the garden and now is the time to cut. Coppicing is easy, cut every stem 5cm above soil level. It is best to coppice hazel at seven years of age, repeating on a seven-year cycle. If you have enough space, grow a number of hazel trees to cut a few every year.
Pollarding is exactly the same but done at head height on the trunk rather than at ground level, traditionally done on willow to allow grazing beneath.
Don’t butcher silver birch
Birch trees will bleed badly if pruned now when sap is rising, so wait until late summer or early winter. Only thin branches, never pollard a silver birch. They’ll survive, but never recover their shape, and produce horrible stumps and masses of new shoots – a crime against this beautiful tree.
Do move and divide
Now is the perfect time to move and divide perennials such as geranium, astrantia, persicaria and echinacea. Snowdrops and aconites aren’t dormant but can be moved, too. Dig around with a sharp spade, lift out and slice clumps so that they each have roots and a growing point. If you need to move shrubs, now is the best time.
Don’t walk on lawns yet
The ground is still very damp and easily squashed, making it best to keep footfall on lawns to a minimum to avoid damaging roots. If growth has begun you can mow on the highest setting.
Do cut back deciduous grasses
Cut dead leaves and flowers down to the base now on deciduous ornamental grasses, keeping an eye out for any new growth. Large miscanthus and pampas grasses are easiest cut with a hedge trimmer.
Don’t cut evergreen grasses unless essential
Ornamental grasses that remain evergreen are best not cut. Instead, remove any dead leaves with gloved hands to protect from cuts.
That said, any evergreen grasses in need of a proper tidy-up can be cut to the base now if absolutely necessary. I find that pony tail grass (Nassella tenuissima), if grown on rich soils, needs to have this done every year otherwise it becomes top heavy.
Do cut back…
Group 2 and 3 clematis
If you’re unsure which group your clematis is in, these flower from early summer onwards. Cut to about 60cm from the ground – even with new shoots above.
Don’t cut back…
Group 1 clematis
These flower now or early in spring and don’t need pruning unless they’re getting out of hand. In which case, cut back after they flower.
Do care for houseplants
Now is a good time to repot houseplants and many will naturally be growing at this time of year. Give those showing signs of growth a weak liquid feed.
Don’t overwater seedlings
If you’ve started growing seedlings in your greenhouse, conservatory or on a windowsill, don’t lavish too much water. If compost is too wet, particularly in winter, it can lead to fungal diseases called “damping off”, which rot the lower stems. Check the compost below the surface and, if damp, don’t water. If dry, add a little water and check again in a few days.
How to get more gardening advice
There’s a large community of gardeners online who are happy to answer your questions. RHS members can ask questions through the membership dashboard on the website: rhs.org.uk
This article is kept updated with the latest advice.