Courtesy of MARION OWEN

Now is the best time to prune cherry trees, apple trees, currants, gooseberries and perennials. Don’t get flustered over the details. Generally, you want to create shape, trim dead branches and provide good light and air.

 After last week’s column about snow mold, followed by a stretch of pleasant weather, I decided it was time to cover a few Q&As. (I’m writing this from a safe distance, of course).

Can I remove mulch from around my perennials?

I may be going out on a limb here, but yes, it’s time to start pulling and lifting mulch. When I say “mulch,” this means leaves, spruce branches, and dead grasses and stems. Mulch is the great insulator, but it has a down side, too. If left sitting on plants for too long, it can cause crown rot. Plus, it can block vital sunlight.

Think of mulch as a parka. You wear it outside most of the winter, but come spring, you don it less frequently. True, some days may start out coolish, but by noon it’s another story. You end up shedding your heavy coat, only to put it back on, say, when you head outside for an evening stroll.

To pull mulch off your raised beds, do it with finesse. That is, carefully and in stages. This sounds tedious but you don’t want to be too ambitious, lest you uproot a tender, winter-survivor seedling.

So don’t remove ALL mulch. Weather is always the Big If and while snow won’t damage plants at this point, a deep frost will. My favorite protective mulch are spruce boughs: easy to set in place and easy to remove.

What soil temperature is best for transplanting seedlings?

Who likes a cold shower? Warm soil is ideal but as a general rule, the soil should be at least 43 degrees. Much below that, and many nutrients are locked up and plants can’t utilize them. 

Meanwhile, watch the weather closely. Keep bed sheets, shower curtains, cardboard boxes and tarps handy as emergency covers in case we get a freeze. 

What about spring perennials?

Cut back dried stalks and seed heads. Gently remove old leaves and plant debris. Keep in mind that some perennials don’t start to put forth growth until late spring. In other words, don’t dig them up in your hurry to fill empty spaces with annuals. Plus, you don’t want to bury tiny seeds like those dropped from Iceland poppies, if you want to see new plants. 

My currant bushes aren’t producing like they used to? Should I prune it?

Currants and gooseberries can become a bit overgrown and fruits become smaller with each year. That’s a signal to thin out the bushes. Select a few of the oldest branches and cut them right to the ground in early spring. If you do this faithfully every few years, the bushes should continue to produce and thrive, according to “The Pruning Answer Book” by Lewis Hill.

My hand pruners are dull and don’t cut well.  How can I keep them sharp?

Sharp tools make clean cuts that heal quickly. You’ll want to sharpen your pruner’s blades with a grindstone, whetstone or steel file. Here’s how:

1. Take apart the tool carefully, lining up parts on your workbench in the order you remove them.

2. Wipe them with a rag soaked in paint thinner. Use a sharp knife to scrape off any residue.

3. Lubricate the sharpening stone with a light oil. Affix the blade to the handle and — holding the partially reassembled tool at an angle — lay the beveled edge flat against the stone and pull it toward you. As you work, the edge will become even and shiny.

How do I build raised beds?

Raising crops of vegetables, herbs and annual flowers in boxed-in raised beds is the best way to garden in our cool coastal climate. Raised beds improve drainage, provide nutrients more readily to plants and prevent soil erosion. And since fluffy is what you’re after, the trick is to not compress the soil by walking on it. (That goes for kids and dogs, too).

That said, many materials will do: four-by-eights, two-by-twelves, logs, stones, cement blocks and so on. You want to keep the width of each bed to a size that allows you to reach across without having to step in the middle, which means the average raised bed can range from 3 to 5 feet wide.

If you didn’t get around to building beds last fall, fill the bottom half of the raised with chunky stuff like kelp, manure, strips of sod placed face down, root balls from last year’s hanging baskets and so on. Top off with smaller-textured compost, cow manure, shredded leaves, peat moss, soil and other materials.

Plant only annual vegetables, herbs and flowers in the new beds because the height of the soil will shrink by one-third or one-half by summer’s end. In the fall, you can top the soil off with more compost and mulch.

Spring weeding

While you’re lifting mulch from around your plants, you might notice a few weeds thriving as if winter never happened. Yes, spring is a good time to get out and weed. Prevention, remember, is the best cure. Better to tackle them sooner than later. 

Be safe and be well. And one of the best places to be well is in the garden. Remember, we’re all in this together. 

“At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has led most of the American population to practice physical distancing, gardening can provide comfort and improved health,” says Michael Weishan, the former host of the PBS series “The Victory Garden.”

Garden job jar

Vegetables to start from seed: Cress, lettuce, arugula, kale, broccoli.

Flowers and herbs to start from seed: Cilantro, calendula, parsley, dill, marigolds, sweet peas, nasturtiums.

Get Marion’s free Photo Tips PDF, a collection of her favorite photography tips, on her blog at MarionOwenAlaska.com. Connect with Marion: Facebook and Instagram or send an email to Marion at mygarden@alaska.net.

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