03/18/2012 07:00 EDT | Updated 05/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Early Spring Garden: Warm Weather Abounds, But It's Likely Too Soon To Garden

Flickr: ericabreetoe
TORONTO - Canadians here, there and almost everywhere have enjoyed unseasonably warm temperatures at the tail end of this winter, already switching their skates for skateboards and launching into other spring-like activities.

But gardeners — as tempting as it may be — might want to keep their rakes in the shed for now, and take care where they tread.

"A lot of people have been asking: what do you do when winter ends or never really starts, and spring has suddenly sprung," says Charlie Dobbin, horticultural director of Canada Blooms, the largest flower and garden show in the country.

For starters, she cautions that you should not walk on your lawn or touch your garden until it is dry enough.

"A soggy wet soil is not something you want to put pressure on, even foot pressure," she advises during at interview at the indoor garden show, which started Friday and continues until next Sunday in conjunction this year with the National Home Show.

She offers up a trick for testing whether the soil is dry enough.

"Take a handful of soil, squeeze your hand together, open your hand up. If the ball of soil stays in a ball, stay out of the soil because it's too wet. If that ball breaks open and crumbles in your hand, now you can get out your rake and you can rake your lawn, you can do a little pruning or whatever you need to do."

Gardening expert Mark Cullen agrees it's not a good idea to get into the garden when the soil is sopping wet.

"You don't want to move that soil around until it's a little bit dry — dry a couple of centimetres down, otherwise you actually damage the integrity of the soil," he says.

"The other thing is with your lawn. It's great to get out and rake your lawn and fertilize it. I encourage Canadians to do that, but you can do it so early that you actually damage the lawn. Let me put it this way: if the heel of your boot leaves a permanent impression on your lawn, you shouldn't be walking on it. So wait for it to dry enough."

And while it may be too soon to dig in the garden or start planting, Dobbin says that depending on where you live, you might want to freshen up your planters.

"Pansies are happening now in the garden centres. They're cold tolerant even if we get cold weather. Get some colour from your pansies, get some more bulbs. Get that bright fresh spring thing happening," she says.

Dobbin is hoping that retailers won't jump the gun and sell anything now that could die in a cold snap.

"Geraniums are a good example. They're pretty, we love them, we often want to buy them as soon as we see them, but they will die in a frost," she says.

"So recognize that if you do some planting into your garden or outside, know what you're dealing with, know whether it's cold hardy or cold tolerant, and slide it into the garage or up into the porch or even into the living room if we're getting below freezing temperatures.

"Because you will run the risk of it dying, and then you'll have to start all over again."

Ted Oorsprong of Northend Gardens in Jordan Station, Ont., says he's been shocked by how, because of the nice weather, people are asking for pansies and violas already.

"It's going to snow again, so if they acclimatize them a bit and we only have minus 2 or 3, OK, put the colour outside and that's OK. But bring it back in if it goes to minus 5 or 10 because they'll probably die."

His advice for those in southern Ontario is to enjoy the Easter flowers first — hydrangeas, tulips, lilies — before jumping into spring, and he notes that Easter isn't until April 8. For bedding plants, he says the recommendation is normally that you wait for the long weekend in May.

"Not because the weather's not nice, but because the soil's warm," he explains. "So if you put a plant into cold soil, it just goes into shock and it won't grow very much. ... So if we've had nice weather the first two weeks of May — 15 C and the soil's warm — sure put your stuff in the soil then."

Cullen says one advantage of an early spring is that is provides an opportunity to plant spring flowering bulbs if you didn't do so last fall.

"You can plant spring flowering bulbs in bloom that you buy by the pot at the supermarket or the hardware store this time of year," he says.

"Sink them right into the ground and get that instant shot of colour, and with the cool evening temperatures, as early as spring may be, with the cool evening temperatures, the length of time those blossoms last is pretty extraordinary. You get great value for your money."

Dobbin says the warmer-than-usual winter will likely mean that a lot of insects — pests and the beneficial ones too — will have survived the winter, and the insect population will rise dramatically. This is good for birds, she notes, but some of them won't have migrated north in time to feast on them. Likewise, fungal spores and other diseases that affect plants will have survived the winter.

"So always, always when you're gardening think about the whole ecosystem. Recognize that there are cycles. This cycle is going to be one where the early spring, the mild winter is going to mean plants are ready to go ... a few warm days, suddenly everything is going to be bursting forth."