Spring cleaning


One of my perennial borders in July. It looks very different now, as you’ll see below.

Gardens made up of native perennials and grasses are relatively easy to care for–no fertilizing and very little watering, if any–but they’re not maintenance free. The most important annual chore is spring cleaning: removal of last year’s dead growth to make way for the new. Remember that all these plants are perennials: in winter and spring the top growth is dead, but the roots are very much alive.

There are many reasons to clean up the garden in spring rather than in fall: first, it’s much easier, because the stalks are dry and easy to break off. In fall you would have to cut them. But ecologically it’s a very good idea to leave the dead material all winter: the remaining seed feeds the birds; the stalks provide shelter to many insects; the plant litter on the ground feeds and shelters ground-feeding birds; and all the material helps prevent groundwater runoff and erosion caused by winter storms.

This is what the same garden looked like a few days ago:


A mess! Last year’s dead material was weighted down by snow and much of it has toppled over, although the toughest stalks remain upright. Some of the green you see is new growth; some is weeds.

Cleanup desperately needed! It’s a good idea to wait until you see lots of new growth, and that time is now.

The first step in cleanup is removing those tough, tall stalks and stems. Place a tarp on the ground to receive the detritus (whether you plan to compost it yourself or take it to a recycling facility, the tarp will facilitate removal and cleanup). Then grab the stalks by the handful and break them off near the base. Don’t pull–you might yank plants right out of the ground. Make a quick snapping motion with your wrist; if necessary, break the stalks in half in the same way (some of the plants in this garden are 8 feet tall). You’ll wind up with something that looks like this: a pile of detritus and lots of visible plants.


With the stalks broken off, the new growth appears. The section you see here is about a third of this 30-foot long border.

At this point, you can see what’s growing. This includes both desirable and undesirable plants. This particular border always contains numerous “volunteers”–things I didn’t plant. The first category of volunteers is native undergrowth like violets, cinquefoil, and sedges. I leave these alone. The second is particularly noxious and fast-spreading weeds like garlic mustard and hairy or western bittercress. These mustards go to seed early, so I pull them the minute I see them. The third category is weeds that require digging–in this garden, wild garlic and ragwort.  I make a note of those and plan to come back later. Finally, there’s woody growth–small tree seedlings and stray offshoots of nearby shrubs. I’ll pull or cut those in a final pass through the garden.

The next step is to gently rake off the remaining material. Gently is the key word here. I use a large leaf rake and pull it through the material on the ground with quick, short, gentle strokes. I want to remove most of the leaf litter but leave the tender new growth. It’s not important to get rid of every dead leaf and bit of stalk. When you’ve done with this step, the garden looks like this:


Remember what this garden will look like in July? Because my neighbor’s fence sits right on the property line, I won’t be able to get into this garden after the plants really start growing. So I have to do all the weeding, planting, and dividing now.

After removing weeds, I can divide plants, give plants away, and, most fun of all, add new ones. And watch the garden turn into a thing of beauty once more.


Spring gardening



The lovely native red maples (Acer rubrum–red flowers) are in bloom right now, as are the wretched invasive Norway maples (Acer platanoides–green flowers).

I’ve finally been able to make time for gardening over the past three or four days, and I’ve got most of my perennial beds cleaned up, meaning I’ve removed last year’s stems and leaves and set them aside for composting as needed. Because of the warm, sunny days, many plants are showing signs of growth, but because of the very cool nights, just as many are still dormant, so I’m very careful about where I dig. Because my beds are planted so thickly, I have very few markers. There are just too many plants for me to be able to mark them all! I do try to mark all new plants, because I may not recognize them when they come up the next spring.

The prairie beds, also known as sunny borders, still look very sparse. The shade garden, which is full of early emerging spring ephemerals, is almost solid green, although there are few flowers yet. Fern fronds are starting to unfurl. I am gradually dividing shade-lovers to fill in the newly expanded shade garden in the front. It’s a nice break from clearing perennial beds.

Lawns are finally greening up, but it’s much too early to feed them. I know that the Scott’s commercials tell you to fertilize twice in spring, but this is totally unnecessary and goes against current horticultural knowledge. If you must fertilize your lawn, only two yearly applications are necessary, around Memorial Day and Labor Day, and both should be organic products. This is a good time to reseed bare patches (although early fall is better), or to decide that you have places where grass just won’t grow. There’s still plenty of time to plant perennials or shrubs instead of lawn.

This is NOT a good time to prune woody plants, except to remove diseased or damaged growth. Plants are in active growth, and they have no energy to spare to heal the wounds that pruning causes. Early bloomers like forsythia can be cut back after they finish blooming. but don’t prune late bloomers in spring or you’ll get no flowers this year.

Here are some pictures taken in the Thielke Arboretum today:


Skunk cabbage is leafed out. Here it’s framed by the delicate yellow flowers of spicebush.


Fern fronds, skunk cabbage, and the tiny emerging leaves of Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense).



Tired of waiting

for spring to really burst out. The problem is that although most days have been warm lately, the nights are quite cold–down into the 30s F. So the plants are biding their time.


In the Thielke Arboretum, skunk cabbage leaves are beginning to emerge beside the wide-open flowers.


In my garden, hazelnuts shrubs are almost finished blooming. These male catkins were waving gently in the breeze yesterday, but they’ve already released their pollen. Soon they’ll fall off. Here’s a picture of the female flower, taken last week.


It’s really too cold to start transplanting, although we have begun the spring cleanup. I raked the leaves off my shadiest garden, but there’s still almost nothing to be seen there–just a few fern fronds and leaves of almost-forgotten daffodils. Up close you can see the buds of ginger leaves, a few tiny columbine leaves, and rosettes of great blue lobelia leaves. There are more than a dozen species of perennials, ferns, grasses, and sedges there. But it pretty much just looks bare.

DSCN1367 I planted my vegetable garden last Thursday with seeds of mesclun mix, leaf lettuce mix, peas, snow peas, and two Japanese mustards. But that’s bare ground too. It’s supposed to be warmer later this week . . .

Hi there!

I finally got to spend an hour in the garden today–an hour with no snow and no rain and free time to putter a bit and begin to attack the springtime chores. I removed the matted leaves from the patio, where they are staining the pavers, patched part of the backyard lawn, and raked the leaves off parts of the beds with the earliest flowers (although nothing much is showing yet). I expected to see bloodroot or Dutchman’s breeches, but all I uncovered was what will be a lovely patch of Heuchera and Tiarella.


Even without raking aside any covering leaves, I noted that sundrops are bursting up as strongly as ever.


And I drooled over some sorrel, wondering how long it will be before I can pick some of those tart, lemony leaves. There’s nothing better in a green smoothie.