Early spring garden cleanup and fruit tree care

URBANA, Ill. – Weather permitting, early spring can provide the time to begin early garden and yard clean up, says Richard Hentschel, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"No matter how tidy the yard and garden looked last fall, Mother Nature always leaves behind some natural and unnatural debris," he says. "Dead twigs and small branches have come down out of mature tree canopies; leaves from the neighborhood collect in shrubs and ground cover beds; plastics from the recycling bin seem to escape and decorate larger shrubs and tree canopies."

The early dry spring weather is a good time to get around the yard, rake up, and uncover plants that have been matted down and smothered by leaves. Some herbaceous ground cover plants do not deal well with being covered up when attempting to emerge. Layers of leaves hold water and can provide suitable conditions for disease development while the weather is cool and damp. Go easy on the raking, Hentschel recommends, so you do not dislodge or damage plants and foliage. Depending on the freeze-thaw cycle during the winter, ground covers with shallow roots may have heaved up out of the soil. It is never a good idea to go out and work a bed in wet weather. If you take a sample of the garden soil and squeeze it and it stays together, it is too wet to work. A better day will come.

Fallen twigs and branches are a lot more common with older, established trees. As trees mature, interior branches receive less and less sunlight until they can no longer survive. This is a normal condition. Winter snow collecting on the branches, along with winter winds, overload the dead branches and they snap off. "Some trees are just messier than others are in this regard," Hentschel says. "Willow trees would be a good example. Twigs are prone to cankers, which girdle those smaller branches, and down they come. Smaller twigs can be added to the compost pile or bin. Larger branches may need to go to curbside pick-up."

While we can put off some yard clean up during unpleasant weather, certain activities have to occur in the home orchard in spring. For example, trees must be pruned annually to train branches into a scaffold pattern. Hentschel says, depending on local weather, this can be anytime from January through March. "Usually, we can find a day or two when the fruit trees can be worked on," he says. Another project for fruit trees is the annual spray program, with a dormant oil recommended as soon as temperatures are above freezing for 24 to 48 hours, depending on the product's label. This is the easiest way to control overwintering adult insect pests and egg masses, by thoroughly covering the trunk and branches where insects and eggs can be found.