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Get your garden ready: Tips from Red Butte Garden

Eager to get your hands in the dirt but not sure where, or when, to start? Red Butte Garden and Arboretum’s horticulturists offer expert advice for garden prep you can dig into this weekend, no matter what Utah’s fickle spring weather is up to.

Longtime director of horticulture Marita Tewes Tyrolt says that starting your garden depends not just on the weather, but on what you hope to accomplish and how much time you want to spend.

“Don’t overthink it too much,” said Tewes Tyrolt, who is glad to be back out in the sunshine, listening to the birds, and spending quality time with her English setter, Dexter, as she begins preparing her home gardens. “Just get out and do what you’re able to do when you’re able to do it. Then come back to it again when you’ve got more time, and be okay with that.”

Here are some great ways to get started:

Get after those weeds. Thanks to our alternating warm and wet winter, ”weeds are going to be really happy,” said Tewes Tyrolt. They need early attention, whether you pull them, put down a pre-emergent, or both.

Get your tools ready. “Make sure your pruners are sharpened and oiled, your tomato cages are ready, and gather any other supplies for the spring,“ said greenhouse manager Kara Hastings. “It’s important to clean your gardening tools to extend their lifespan and avoid spreading diseases among plants.”

A woman prunes thorny branches.

PHOTO CREDIT: Mindy Wilson

Celeste Tholen prunes rose bushes to prepare for spring.

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Prune roses. It’s a little late now to prune fruit trees, but it’s the right time to cut back roses. “You’re pruning back what died over the wintertime and setting their structure and shape for the year,” said Tewes Tyrolt. “Pruning to a bud that will then grow toward the exterior of the bush helps maintain an open habit, which reduces diseases.”

Tidy up . . . but ease up, for pollinators’ sake. Some adult butterflies overwinter in leaf litter. They’re just beginning to emerge in the garden in mid-March as daytime temperatures hold at a consistent 50 degrees or above. Horticulturist Lynsey Nielson suggests leaving some undisturbed debris in your yard awhile longer, maybe in less visible parts of a shrub or perennial border, until you see butterflies. Look for California tortoiseshells first, followed by mourning cloaks.

Add new mulch. But, again, keep ground-dwelling pollinators in mind. “Pay attention to where there might be entrances to bee holes, where bumblebees or other ground-nesting bees are potentially making their homes. You don’t want to lock them in forever,” Nielson said. “As soon as the soil starts to warm up, you’ll start seeing them around.”

Start prepping raised beds. “Remove any remaining plants from last season and turn over the soil. Loosening compacted garden beds with a stiff rake is a great way to get ready for spring. Add some fresh compost, mix it in, and your beds are ready,” said Hastings. “Keep in mind that yearly additions of organic matter (think compost and mulch) is what will really bring your soil to life.”

A woman plants a plant.


Planting cool season annuals in the Orangerie Garden.

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Start seeds for long-germinating vegetable and perennials. “If you want to start your own seeds, some common garden plants, like perennials, peppers, and tomatoes, should be started indoors. Consult your last frost date, and plan to start seeds 6-8 weeks before your last frost,” said Kara Hastings. “The alternative is to purchase healthy plants grown by local nurseries (and botanical gardens!) to plant after Mother’s Day,” after northern Utah has typically experienced its last frost.

Plant cool season annuals and vegetables. That means pansies, snapdragons, Icelandic poppies, ornamental kale and cabbage, and peas, carrots, lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula, radishes, broccoli, and cauliflower. Check out the National Gardening Association’s Garden Planting Calendar for zip code-specific guidance on vegetable gardening.

Check irrigation. “It’s too early to turn on the irrigation system and start watering, but it’s not too early to check it and identify any necessary repairs that you need to make and then make them so that the system is ready when you need it,” Tewes Tyrolt said. As for when to begin supplemental watering, Nielson said, “The watering guide on the “Slow the Flow” website is a good touchstone for people who have not been around for the wild ups and downs of spring in Utah. Most homeowners overwater by 40 to 50 percent, so it’s worthwhile to check the local advice about when and how much is appropriate.”

Check your hardiness zone. The U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its plant hardiness zone map last fall, its first update since 2012, which indicates a warming trend moving northward. Here in Utah, our growing season is getting longer and our frost seasons shorter, which may affect which plants you can grow. Utah’s zones vary depending on elevation, but most have changed to accommodate warmer average winter temperatures. 

Get inspired, find plants, and learn more at Red Butte Garden. “The best gardening advice is local advice,” said Nielson, whether you tap neighbors and family, local garden center staff, or Red Butte Garden’s willing and ready experts. Come gather ideas and inspiration, chat up our hort staff when you find them out working, and consider taking a gardening class. Remember that U students and staff are admitted free with valid UCard and that walks here can count toward your Well U credit.

Don’t miss the Garden’s Annual Spring Plant Sale, Friday May 10 (members only) and Saturday, May 11, where you can source hard-to-find natives, vegetables, perennials, ornamental grasses, and more. Look for Marita, Lynsey, Kara, and the rest of Red Butte’s seasoned horticulture staff, who’ll be eager to answer your questions and help you make the best selections.