Getting Ready to Garden

My mother was English and loved gardening. When I was four, we immigrated to Massachusetts and Mum was devastated to learn that gardening in lovely moist, not too hot, not too cold England is not at all the same as gardening in extremely hot, extremely cold and rocky eastern Mass. I picked up on Mum’s frustration and distaste of suburban US yards from an early age.

I’m pretty certain that’s why I like city gardens so much: they resemble the small English gardens my Mum loved. When my husband and I bought our condo twelve years ago, my Mum came to help in my tiny urban oasis. It was full of building debris and mounds of dog poo. Mum stayed out there with me all weekend cleaning, turning the soil and planting the beds.

The time with my Mum in that garden is one of my most precious memories. Her health started to decline after that and she never did get out in another garden again. I continue to use the lessons she taught me during that time. Gardening does that: it opens us up and creates a safe place to open our hearts and share our thoughts.

And now that the long winter is finally over, visions of window boxes overflowing with petunias, pots of tomatoes ripening on fire escapes, and green grass warm enough to dance on are running through my mind.

Now is the time to waken not only the spring-spirit in all of us, but also to gently start waking up our gardens. While the air temps are still too cool to do any planting (outside of sowing certain seeds) and the ground is only just starting to soften, there is still plenty we can do to get ready to garden.

Gardening Tools

Get those tools ready

Every gardener (even city folk) use tools. If you are just starting to garden or perhaps adding a new plant element into your space, you may want to consider adding some of these common (and maybe not so common) tools into your kit:

• Shears (grass shears; pruning shears; hedge shears)
• Kitchen Scissors (yes, every gardener should carry a pair!)
• Gardening Gloves
• Soil knife (for “teasing” roots, root pruning and planting bulbs…)
• Spades (hand spades, long handled spade, digging shovel, edger…)
• Knife Sharpening Stone
• Rake (telescoping handles are great for city spaces)
• Buckets (I prefer a flexible one such as Tubtrug, as they can serve multiple purposes: water carrier; waste collection; mulch distributor; mixing tub for planting mediums…)
• Watering can or hose (I like coil or flat hoses as they take up less space in our small city gardens, but I also have a lovely copper watering can gifted by Mum. It has moved with me to every garden and I still think of Mum every time I see it.)

If you already have all the tools you need and want, gather them together and inspect them. Is there rust on your knife or spade? Do your shears have notches on the blades from last seasons pruning work? Are the wooden handles rough and splintered?

Many northeast gardeners are worn out by the time the fall leaves stop falling and simply shove their tools on the nearest shelf for the winter. I tend to shove my tools in the back of my work van. We are exhausted by the end of the season – we work seven days a week, April through November. We make sure to do regular maintenance on our tools throughout the season so they are not in quite as bad a shape as they could be, but I love seeing all of them clean and tidy and ready to go in the spring.

Luckily most tools are easy to care for and late care is better than no care.

Once you have assessed what needs doing: clean, oil and sharpen those shears; use a wire brush to get the dirt off of your spades and shovels; sand down rough handles and clean out your buckets and planting containers!

Assess Winter Damage

This winter was not only brutal on us; it was also hard on our gardens.  My lace leaf Japanese Maple (a common city tree) has some broken branches. I still have to do a full inspection of the space next week, but I know that the repetitive freezing and thawing will have stressed many plants, as well as the amount of snow we got and how long it stuck around for. In the city we often pile our snow in order to clean our streets and sidewalks. Unfortunately, in some instances that was on top of plants. I have noticed many broken and damaged trees and shrubs throughout town.

Once the snow-mountains have all melted, go into your space and look for any damage. Make notes and take photos (which can help you identify both the type of plant and the type of damage). Once you have a complete list, you can search around for care suggestions. Ask neighbors or friends who garden, go on the Internet and/ or call a professional.

Prune Ornamental Grasses

Late winter is the best time to prune ornamental grasses (before the new growth starts). An easy way I have found to do this is to gather the grass up, tie the top of the bundle with string and cut the ‘bundle’ off. For large grasses you can use an electric pruning saw.


Amend Your Soil

The healthiest soil is alive (in other words, it’s teaming with microbes). By adding compost into the native soil, you are feeding it and in turn feeding your plants. This is a task that can be done in both garden beds and containers. Take some organic compost (home made is great, but there are also some off-the-shelf options), and blend it into the existing soil.

Even a small amount will make a difference. If you are adding compost into containers with plants, gently scratch around the surface of the soil in the pot (being careful not to damage roots) and turn in a handful or two of compost. I don’t have my own compost pile, but I want to start one this year. It’s a rather involved process, but to keep it simple, there are compost bins (both off the shelf and handmade) that people collect (aka throw) their greens and browns into. If you can keep the moisture balanced and you turn your mix, eventually it decomposes and breaks down into “brown gold” which is amazing nutrition for the gardens!

We purchase compost for some of our clients, others have their own compost piles and we use that. If you are amending soil in a pot with no plant, dump your soil into a bucket or onto a piece of plastic sheeting and stir the compost in.

Add Mulch

Organic mulch is a multi-purpose garden element. Not only does it help to regulate soil temperature and moisture, it’s also a source of nutrients for your soil and plants. I don’t know anyone in the city (or anywhere else for that matter) who makes their own mulch as it would require a wood chipper and enough space to store large fallen or cut down trees so I buy it from the local garden centers. And mulching your beds in the spring will help your garden look neat and tidy for many months to come!

Sow Some Seeds

Now is the time to sow certain seeds indoors and others outdoors. I have two packets sitting on my kitchen counter – zinnias and beans. My six year old picked them out at the supermarket. For an extensive list (by zip-code) check out the Farmers Almanac’s online guide.

Prepare Your Lawn

Early spring is one of the best times to weed, seed and feed your lawn. Once the ground is unfrozen, pop on a pair of gloves, grab a small trowel or hori-hori and go out and weed. I don’t recommend chemical weed killers as in my opinion they cause a lot more problems than they solve. And hand weeding can be very therapeutic!


Don’t plan to visit your local garden center (of which Hudson County has several) on the first sunny day of the season. Instead, wait for the rainiest gloomiest day, stick on your rubber boots and head on over. I promise you will have the place to yourself, the full attention of the staff and the plants will look happy as can be.



Grab a cup of coffee and a plant catalogue or landscape design book; sit by a sunny window and start planning your perfect outdoor retreat! Garden Gate Magazine is a great source for home gardeners. It’s very readable and not at all intimidating. I own a library of gardening reference books and magazines that I look through (I am a true gardening nerd!) for inspiration and I have my favorite websites: and Pinterest.

I also follow a lot of gardens, gardeners, designers, environmentalists and others on Twitter. Twitter is a great source for information (at least in the gardening world). A Small Green Space is planning to use our own Twitter account this season to inform our clients (and other followers) of gardening specific advice and information (e.g. “sale on petunias at 14th Street Garden Center” or “It’s really hot and rain is not forecast for at least 5 days… make sure to water today!” etc). We will also be posting inspirational gardening pics!

I was in Word Bookstore on Friday and noticed they have a few gardening books on display that one of their employees has written little blurbs about. It’s always fun to sit in a bookstore with a cup of coffee and a gardening book.

For the best inspiration, take a walk! Even now the crocuses and snowdrops are starting to bloom, the daffodils and tulips are pushing their leaves out of the ground and the buds on the cherry trees are starting to swell. Van Vorst Park is a great place to see spring springing to life.

Happy Gardening!

Emma Lam is the owner of A Small Green Space, a local urban design and gardening company.

© Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.

Photos by Emma Lam © Harmony Media, NJ

Emma Lam

is the owner of A Small Green Space, a full service urban landscape design, installation and maintenance firm based in Jersey City. From stage actress to horticulturalist, she brings a unique flair to gardening. She lives in Jersey City with her husband, daughter and playful hound dog.