Rex’s ‘quick and dirty’ spring gardening guide

Rex Jensen's spring garden 2010 | Photo by Rex Jensen, St. George News

SOUTHERN UTAH – March is an exciting time for southern Utah gardeners, the days are warming, the soil is warming and plants are beginning to grow. If you haven’t begun preparing your garden, pruning your roses or pruning your trees—do so now.

Here are some “cliff notes,” “gardening for dummies” and “quick and dirty” guides for gardening.


Not every gardener grows the same plants, but every gardener needs to follow principles that will guarantee success for what he does grow. Gardening is science, not magic, not “green thumb” and not reserved for the special few. If you do it right, you will have success—but you must do it right. Here’s what you should have already done, or can do right now.

1. Till your garden. If you don’t have a tiller, your neighbor does, or your friends down the street. Most are willing to share their tiller, or till the garden for you. But it’s time to get your soil loosened up and ready for planting.

2. Till in compost, manure, or other nutrients that your plants will need to thrive—and do it now. I like to do this in late fall so the compost is ready to use by spring planting time, but you can do it now too. Horse manure is excellent for gardens and those with horses usually are anxious to get rid of the stuff, they’ll let you have it free if you’ll come and get it. The Washington County Landfill has an excellent composting process that is ongoing year round, at a very reasonable cost, but it gets snatched up fast, so don’t wait if you want this compost. Leaves, pecan shells, straw, sawdust and most leftovers from the kitchen make excellent compost, but it will do your garden no good to put them in the ground now, so get it composting somewhere and put it in the ground in the fall.

3. Get seeds in the ground. All cool weather crops can be planted now: broccoli, lettuce, beets, carrots, spinach, onions and peas can all be planted now. Broccoli, lettuce, and peas have a short window and don’t like the heat so get them in the ground now; they’ll sprout and grow even in cool weather. It’s a little early for warm weather crops like corn, melons, squash, peppers and tomatoes. Tomatoes can be planted now if you use Walls of Water protection, or are prepared to cover them if frost is forecast.

Pruning Rose Bushes

Pruning roses is a bit of an art, but it isn’t that difficult either if you understand a few basic principles. It’s not really ever too late to prune roses, although it’s best to prune just as they are beginning to bud because it allows you to make better pruning decisions.

When pruning, err on the side of extreme rather than timidity. Roses should be pruned way back each year; they will do better, grow better, and produce more and larger roses this way. A lot of people don’t have the heart to prune their beautiful rose bushes way down, but it is the best, it is necessary.

Much of the pruning is about shaping the rose bush; the bush should be open so canes have room to grow. Always cut out any dead canes, large or small, and then eliminate canes that cross, or grow parallel to another cane. On the remaining canes, find the bud that is emerging in the direction you want the bush to grow. For example, if I am trying to widen out the bush, I want to prune just above an outside facing bud. If I want to fill some open gap in the shape of the bush, then prune just above a bud facing the direction I want to fill. You should cut about an inch above the bud. Leave the strong, thick canes; eliminate the spindly, weak ones.

Roses, like most other plants, do better with a lot of nutrients. Compost can be gently tilled in around roses, but be careful not to damage the roots. Generally, manure (horse manure is perfect for roses) can be spread out around the rosebush and regular watering will take the nutrients down to the roots. Supplement with a good commercial fertilizer blend for roses. Your local nurseryman can help with this and there is an abundance of help on the internet.

Tree Pruning

Shade and ornamental trees also need pruning. These can be pruned during the winter months or early spring; it’s not too late to do it now, but it’s too late after the tree has leafed out. Here’s a quick and easy guide to pruning trees:

1. Always cut out the dead wood first, there is never any reason to leave dead wood on a tree.

2. In general, trees should be pruned high enough so adults walking under then do not get whacked in the face, nor should adults have to duck to walk under a tree.

3. Again, shaping is important. If a tree has sent out a branch where you don’t want it, cut it off, and eliminate all branches that cross or rub another branch. Never “top” a tree…ever, it should not ever be done and is the worst thing you can do to a tree.

4. If you have a chipper or a means of turning your prunings into sawdust, do it and put them in your garden or compost pile.

Weeds and Water:

Weeds should be kept out of the garden, from around your roses and shrubs, and from every other place in your yard; here’s why. Weeds sprout earlier than garden produce, grow faster and produce seeds almost immediately. Weeds rob your garden of water, nutrients and sunlight, and their seeds will keep your garden in weed seeds forever unless you take them out early. Many weeds produce seed within days of sprouting. Weeds are much easier to remove when just seedlings than when they are a foot tall. A brief walk through your garden daily, with a hoe or shovel or other tool will allow you to keep all weeds out of your garden; your garden will look better, your crops will do better, and you will begin to eliminate the reproductive cycle of weeds.

Water is precious in the desert, drip irrigation is effective, saves money, and allows you to distribute water soluble fertilizer when you water. Sylvan Wittwer, now deceased, who was born and raised in Hurricane, spent his life at Michigan State University and is a world renowned horticulturist and gardener. He recommends using mono-ammonium phosphate as a water soluble fertilizer for gardens, and it can be distributed through your drip system.

Have gardening questions you’d like to see covered in future articles? Email them to Rex:

email: [email protected]

twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2012 St. George News.



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1 Comment

  • Tyler March 2, 2012 at 5:56 am

    St. George is warm enough in late January/February to plant carrots, peas, radishes-all the cool weather veggies. By mid March, some years it could already be getting too hot for peas and radishes. To be completely honest, planting these plants in Fall to live through the winter is best, then once March is here, put in tomatoes and all your basic garden plants. (in St. George)

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