Spring To-Do List for a Garden with Shrubs

Setting your garden up for success starts in spring! Spend some time doing these ten tasks now and you’ll be thanking yourself the rest of the year. Besides, who doesn’t want an excuse to spend the day outdoors at this time of year?

1 - Rake

A gardener rakes out their garden in the spring.

Rake out leaves and debris from around the base of your plants. If you’ve got a lot of shrubs, focus your energies especially on those that are susceptible to powdery mildew, like ninebark, roses, and lilacs. This promotes good airflow within the plant and removes any leaves harboring last year’s spores.

Why? Good airflow keeps the plants from getting stressed. Stressed plants are more vulnerable to pests and diseases. The removal of diseased leaves reduces the risk of reinfection.

2 - Weed

As you uncover the ground, you’ll probably find some weeds (and maybe some grass, if you’ve got a garden like mine). It’s good to weed the garden as early as possible, before they become a problem. Thankfully, weeding is easier in the spring because the weeds are small, ideally, and the roots come out easier thanks to soft, moist soil.

Why? Weeds compete for resources with all plants, even shrubs. Make the most of your soil’s nutrients by ensuring that your shrubs are getting them, not the weeds.

3 - Mulch

While you’re inspecting the ground, check for any areas that might need some new mulch. Over time, mulch breaks down and needs replacing. We recommend maintaining a layer about 2-3″/5-7cm thick.

Why? Although mulch can be expensive and time consuming to apply, it really is an amazing garden helper. It controls weeds, helps the soil retain moisture, and over time can add nutrients to the soil as it degrades. Learn more about why you shouldn’t use weed fabric in this blog.

4 - Deadhead

Deadhead any lingering large dried flowers on your shrubs that bloom on old wood. Just take the spent flower, follow the stem all the way down to the first set of leaf buds, and cut a quarter inch above that set. Plants like these could often use a snip:

bigleaf, mountain, and oakleaf hydrangeas
– lilac

Why? Removing large spent flowers tidies up the appearance of the shrub and makes way for new flowers and foliage.

5 - Prune

Prune shrubs that bloom on new wood and benefit from a trim, if they are showing you they’re ready. Flag or stake shrubs that aren’t quite ready yet so you’ll remember to check again in the future. In very early spring, you’ll see plants that don’t have swelling buds quite yet, like panicle hydrangeas and butterfly bushes. See the seven shrubs we recommend pruning in spring.

Why? You don’t technically need to prune your shrubs every year, but some of them will produce the most flowers, have the most handsome habits, and maintain the best health with a yearly prune. Plants like roses and panicle hydrangeas can get clogged up with spindly inner growth that restricts air flow and rubs together. Check out some of our favorite pruning how-to’s on our YouTube channel.

Important: If you aren’t certain that something should be pruned, don’t prune it! Either wait til you can find out what to do, or leave it and see what happens so you can make the right decision next spring.

6 - Tidy

Cut out dead or damaged branches from any shrub, no matter if it blooms in spring or not.

Why? Cutting out dead branches neatens the appearance of the shrub and cutting out damaged branches saves the shrub energy. Plus, in spring, it’s easy to see and remove such branches.

7 - Stake

Stake and try to retrain any shrubs that were damaged by snow or ice. Tie flexible stems to carefully positioned posts to help the plant’s growth harden in an upright position.

Why? Quick action can keep your plant looking beautiful.

8 - Transplant

A gardener decides their hydrangea needs to move and begins to dig it up to transplant it.

Transplant any shrub that isn’t working in the space or is too crowded by other shrubs (or give it away if it doesn’t inspire you anymore). Most shrubs will respond best to moving in spring while they are still dormant, especially considering that some shrubs shouldn’t be moved in the fall (like evergreens or butterfly bushes). Learn about the quick eight-step process here.

Why? Since shrubs are still dormant from winter, they won’t experience as much stress as they would transplanted later in the season. Plus, the cooler weather, more frequent rainfall, and less intense sun exposure help shrubs recover quickly from transplanting. 

9 - Fertilize

Apply a granular fertilizer formulated for flowering shrubs to plants with high nutrient needs, like:

– butterfly bush
– rose of Sharon
– rose

Why? Only applying fertilizer to heavy feeders will keep your soil free of unnecessary nutrients that may just leach out of the soil. If you’re not sure what nutrients your soil already has or if it’s deficient, get a soil test kit from your local garden center. Early spring is a great time to fertilize because the rain and moist soil will help the fertilizer weather and become available for the plant to take up, right when they need it the most.

10 - Plant

While you were working on all of the above tasks, you probably let your mind wander. Plant the new shrubs of your dreams! Spring is a great time for planting. Get the basics of planting in this 46 second video.

Why? New shrubs will easily adjust to your garden conditions in the springtime for the same reasons that shrubs transplant easier then too – cooler temps, more frequent rainfall, and less intense sun. If your new plants have tender growth, like you can see on this Perfecto Mundo azalea to the left, be sure to protect the plant on any nights where a frost or freeze threatens by draping an old blanket over it for the night.

Want to see a real gardener doing all of these things to prep their space for spring (it’s me!)? Check out the quick video series we’ll be filming all spring. 

Comments (4)

  1. Esther Kurbis

    I’m glad you added the “WHY” part. Just saying ‘do it’ doesn’t inspire me much. Now I know ‘why’ I should. Thanks, very informative.

    • Kristina Howley

      Knowing what benefit you’ll get from all this work is a bit more motivating! So glad you’ve found it useful.

  2. Vicki Switzer

    I have limelight hydrangeas I purchased from you three years ago. They are now covered with dried blooms.

    I think you are saying above, that they should be pruned, not dead-headed. If I am happy with the shape, can I skip the pruning this year. Or will the pruning improve number of blooms?

    • Kristina Howley

      Hi Vicki – no harm will come from skipping a year of pruning. You can certainly deadhead it to help it maintain a tidy appearance though!

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Kristina Howley

I am all in when it comes to gardening. Almost every part of the experience delights me – new leaves emerging in spring, pollinators buzzing in summer, birds devouring berries in fall, and the somber beauty of seed heads in winter. Thanks to a background in horticulture and gardening my own clay-filled, flowery USDA zone 5b plot, I’ve learned plenty of practical things as well. I like sharing these joys and lessons with my fellow gardeners and soon-to-be gardeners any way I can.


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