Gardening: Until it warms up, focus on tools

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

For those of us who garden, March Madness is an overwhelming urge to get out in the dirt when the temperatures reach into the 60s and the sun is shining. The problem is, here in Michigan the weather can change on a dime and by midnight the thermometer may have dropped like a stone and suddenly it’s freezing cold and snowing buckets. So removing protective mulch and cutting back dead foliage may expose tender new growth to killing frost.

So as not to experience early spring die back from frost, rose bushes should not be pruned until the tiny buds begin emerging on the canes.

According to research published by the North Carolina State University Turf Council, cold weather grasses don’t begin root growth until the soil temperature climbs into the 40s. To get the biggest bang for your buck, wait until the soil temperatures reach 50 to 65 degrees and the grass is actively growing to fertilize your lawn. Put down water-soluble fertilizer on a sunny day in March or even early April and you may be wasting your money. Heavy spring rains often wash away most of those nutrients long before the grass roots can make use of them.

A soil thermometer, available at garden centers and priced at around $10, can become one of the best tools in your tool shed.

To measure the soil temperature, make a hole about an inch deep with a screwdriver and then insert the thermometer and leave it in place for a couple of minutes.

While waiting for the weather to warm use this time to clean and sharpen the blades of your pruning tools. Sharp blades make clean cuts that heal rapidly and stimulate healthy new growth.

While waiting for the soil to warm, cold weather, spring blooming pansies, primroses and hellebores can take the cold weather and make delightful porch pots.

Appearances: Join me and celebrate the arrival of spring at English Gardens’ Garden Party Weekend. At 10 a.m. March 24, I will talk about hot trends and problem solving in the garden at English Gardens in Clinton Township. At 1 p.m., I will be at the West Bloomfield English Gardens and at 4 p.m. I will speak at the Dearborn Heights store.

At noon March 25, I will be at Royal Oak English Gardens, and at 3 p.m. I will be at the Eastpointe store. All programs are free. For addresses and information check the English Gardens website:

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnewscom/homestyle.