The best is yet to come – just not quite yet

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Our gardening columnist begins work on her third city garden, this is what she has learned 

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T.S. Eliot may have said that April is the cruellest month. But for a lot of gardeners, March isn’t much kinder, and May can be pretty heartless, too.

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We got a taste of the treachery of early spring in mid-March, when temperatures climbed into the mid-teens and all our spring bulbs started shooting out of the ground like fireworks.

Some of my neighbours were even out raking their beds, fooled – just like the flowers – into thinking spring was really here. And yet, barely a week later, there we were, shovelling snow off the sidewalks.

This is my third city garden, and like many amateur gardeners, every year I vow this will be its best year yet. What’s different this year is that I’ll be sharing my garden’s ups and downs with you over the course of the season.

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Think of me as the lady down the street in the battered sunhat, who’s always happy to lean on my rake to answer a question or chat with a fellow enthusiast.

I’m no expert, but I’ve been around gardens for nearly five decades, if you count puttering in my mum’s gardens as a kid. I’ve had my successes and failures: the plants (and sometimes, trees) that up and died for no reason; the fancy cultivar that resolutely failed to bloom no matter how much love and care it got – and, now and then, the little guy purchased on sale or impulse that liked where it landed and is now thriving.

Back to this cruel spring we’re having. Don’t worry about your bulbs, by the way; they’ll be fine. Tulips come from the mountains of Turkey, where winters are long and harsh, and crocuses are tough little European corms that can survive almost anything (except hungry squirrels, of course). The worst that will happen in an April cold snap is the tips of their leaves will be a bit crinkled.

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What you do want to be mindful of is your soil, and the perennials still asleep underneath it. Raking up the mulch too early defeats the purpose of having mulch in the first place, by exposing the soil to drying winds and harsh temperature changes.

But there’s an even more critical reason to leave your mulch alone: it’s full of beneficial creatures that are important to the health of your garden, from good bacteria to overwintering bees and ladybugs. If you rake it all up and put it in leaf bags for garbage day, you’re depriving your garden of some real benefits. Plus, it’s cruel.

What I do on those first few warm days is to gently push back the mulch, using my fingers, just a centimetre or two from the emerging tips of the bulbs.

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This makes it easier to take up your mulch later when the flowers have fully emerged, but still allows it to do its job until spring is well and truly here.

I also cut down the seed stalks of perennials I’ve left up for winter interest, such as grasses and black-eyed susans, and generally do some light tidying up. (Since my front garden borders the sidewalk, I also pick up the Tim Horton’s cups, food wrappers and other litter that magically appears when the snow melts.)

It’s hard to be patient when the sun is shining and the crocuses all have their petals stretched wide open like the mouths of hungry baby birds. But there will be plenty to do later; for now, I’ll be content to dream and plan for the season ahead – the best one yet, of course.

Please feel free to write in with your questions (if I can’t answer you, I’ll find someone who can), or to share your own city gardening adventures. Write to me at [email protected].

Martha Uniacke Breen lives, writes and gardens in Toronto.

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