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Spring Cleanup and an Open Mind

It was just above 50 degrees the other day so I finished cleaning out the flowerbeds. Although the air was cool, the sun’s warmth allowed me to remove my jacket as I cut the perennials and grasses to the ground. My work was accompanied by the spring mating calls of birds, and the flicker’s noisy drumming, “This place is mind, this place is mine, this place is mine,” on the largest trees. As I chopped down the feverfew, the scent of not-quite-chrysanthemum-but-something-close reminded me of warmer days in the garden. Spring clean up is a very satisfying job.

When I talk about flower garden maintenance on the radio, or to a live audience, I stress that there isn’t one right way. Some like to cut annuals and perennials to the ground in the fall, and others choose to leave the dried stems and leaves in the garden until spring. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method.

Clearing spent perennials out in the fall removes seed heads, resulting in fewer small plants that need be edited out of the garden. A fall cleanup also makes adding soil amendments – an inch of compost right on the surface of the garden – easier to apply. Cleaning up in autumn also means that there will be less to do in the spring.

On the other hand, leaving the dried plants in the garden allows wildlife to feed on the seeds. A spring cleanup will be necessary anyway in order to cut down grasses and those perennials that were still looking good in November. The weeds that sprouted in the fall and grew all winter will need to be pulled, so even gardens that were cleared in the fall will need maintenance at winter’s end.

As I cleared the perennial bed the other day I found another reason to delay cleanup until the spring. I noticed that those perennials that I didn’t cut down were leaf traps. Heaped around the stalks of Verbena bonariensis, feverfew and Agastache were oak leaves, and just under those leaves was fresh green foliage and new growth. The leaves protected the crowns of these plants, and kept them sheltered and warm.

It dawns on me that this is nature’s way of providing winter cover. No one is doing fall cleanups in the fields and woodlands, after all, so stems are left to catch the leaves and other organic debris that blows by. This is the perfect system for the protection of the plants, and I’m embarrassed that this hasn’t occurred to me before. Mother Nature is the first, and best, Master Gardener and wouldn’t you think that I could remember this?

The garden is constantly challenging us to keep our eyes and minds open. I pray that I can remember to do this in my landscape and beyond.

Because the feverfew plants still looked good in November, I left them in the garden. The tops got frosted, but remained in the garden to catch the oak leaves. When I cut the stems down, I saw that there is healthy, green foliage that lived through a hard winter because it was covered with leaves.

Because the feverfew plants still looked good in November, I left them in the garden. The tops got frosted, but remained in the garden to catch the oak leaves. When I cut the stems down, I saw that there is healthy, green foliage that lived through a hard winter because it was covered with leaves.

2 Responses to “Spring Cleanup and an Open Mind”

  1. 1
    Jim Collins:

    I have a thick bed of leaves on my perennial beds. I left on the ground over the winter to protect the plants. When should I clean them out? Should I wait until the plants have sprouted, or should they be cleaned off before the plants come out. I’m fairly confident we will not have another frost at this point (SE Michigan). Thanks for your help.

  2. 2
    CL Fornari:

    I’d take the leaves off soon – as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, the leaves give protection that acts like a little greenhouse so that growth underneath them is accelerated. If you leave them much longer that growth will be more accelerated and more tender once it gets exposed to “real air and sunshine”. So take them off now, and the slightly accelerated growth should harden off quickly.

    I’m doing the same in my gardens right now, and because of the cold off-ocean winds we are still pretty chilly here – not much different from Michigan!