Toil and Trouble - Spring Garden Clean-up Time

Toil and Trouble - Spring Garden Clean-up Time

It's that time again - the time when confusion reigns and it doesn't look as if everything will possibly get sorted out in time for the real garden season. You know that season. It lasts a day or two and is the time when you sit back and admire things and can't find a single weed or encroaching branch to cause you to leap out of your chair to tend to them. And it comes every five years or so.
Meanwhile, there is work to be done. So much work that it doesn't seem possible to even contemplate it all. If I did I'd call in a backhoe and have them fill in all those spots I call gardens.

Instead, I try to break things down into manageable tasks. Instead of saying that I need to clean out all of the beds and trim back all of the shrubs and do a massive spring tidying, I only allow myself to contemplate one garden at a time - and one goal at a time.


My first task is to get out my loppers and attack the roses in the poppy field. They have grown so monstrously large that it will require not just arm gauntlets but a shield of some kind - but it has to be done. If it isn't, I won't be able to do much else in that garden, simply because I can't get to it without being punctured in a zillion different places.

After that I will do an inspection of the ground, looking for signs of the monstrous and un-pullable weed that tried to take over in that area last year. I am hoping that if I spot those types of weeds that grow like bamboo or those that have taproots that go to Australia when they are still young I can get rid of them with relative ease. I'm not much on using chemicals in the garden, but there are one or two weeds that are otherwise indestructible. This year I hope to get to them when they are still young and tender and drown them in Round-Up.

Other weeds will be disposed of relatively easily. Some pull up quite nicely, and most will depart this earth with a few passes of the hoe. Get the weeds now before they have a chance to take hold, then go to seed. At this time of year they don't fight too hard.

Of course weeding time presents me with a bit of a dilemma. I don't know about you, but last year I planted several new types of plants that I had never grown before. I have no idea what they look like in their infant stages - in fact in a few cases I don't have a really clear picture of what the mature foliage looked like. I live in fear that I will hoe up something I paid good money for last year - but even more afraid that if I leave that strange plant in the ground it will turn out to be the weed from Hell. (Those are MUCH harder to pull up than those whose roots considerately stop in Tasmania.)

Normally, unless a plant is quite large, I tend to plant in groups of three or 5 or more, so one good clue as to whether a particular spot of green is friend or foe is the number of them I see making an appearance. A single plant is probably a weed. Multiples may or may not be. I am wracking my brain now trying to remember if I was experimenting with a new kind of groundcover last year because in one area that is what I seem to have - so much of this stuff that it's either a dastardly foe or a real winner.

My usual solution is to wait a bit. There is plenty else to occupy my time, so I hate to waste it dithering.

Cutting and Cleaning Out
For instance, it makes great good sense to clear out the remains of last year's garden before I start worrying about those things just now appearing. The evergreen daylily foliage is now a pile of straw colored mush that will come off fairly easily with a sturdy rake. Stems and twiggy growth from last year's annuals and perennials can be cut down. I always enjoy doing this because almost invariably I am greeted with fresh, vibrant new growth pushing up through the ruins of last year.

The absolute best is cutting back the hellebore foliage, which gets quite tatty looking by spring. Because when you get rid of the leaves you see tons of buds, just waiting to burst into bloom.

And then the ornamental grasses must be attacked. They did a great job this winter of creating some interest and texture in the winter garden, but by now they are starting to shatter - so there are broken shards of grass all over. Warning - wear gloves if you try to pick these up or to wade in to cut them down. Those blades can be very sharp!

If your grasses are isolated enough that they won't pose a hazard to the surrounding structures and vegetation you can burn the old foliage. If not, the best way to tackle this job is to tie a rope or string around the middle of the old foliage and then use a chain saw or whatever cutting implement you have handy to make your cut below that. Then you have

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Another springtime task for me is to rake out the lambs' ears (Stachys byzantina). Much of last year's growth is now brown and shriveled and ugly. But it comes away pretty easily if you go at them with a sturdy rake. This lets you see how much it has grown - and you will probably want to remove half or more of it - unless you don't care to have anything else in that garden.

That done, you can look at the bed you have been working in and see that it has turned into something more closely resembling a junk heap than a garden.

If you are smart you will have brought something like a tarp or old sheet with you. You can rake all the debris in the beds onto that sheet - it's a lot easier than trying to pick it up by the arm full. But don't drag it to the compost heap just yet, because you're not done.

Make sure you inspect the debris just in case you have inadvertently raked up a plant that was uprooted by frost heave. Tuck these tenderly back into the bed - they may just surprise you. I found a few bulbs today that had been heaved from the earth - and they had as much new leafy growth as those still securely tucked in. And last year I was devastated to find my prize hosta, Aphrodite, lying face down in the dirt, roots waving frantically in the air. I righted her and tucked her back where she belonged - and she grew and flowered. Plants are often much tougher than one might expect.

Once you've raked away the debris you can see what's left in the beds. The skeletons of last year's perennials and annuals may be sticking up from the ground. Cut the perennials back and pull the annuals out. Put them on the sheet with the rest of the debris.

Check any woody plants. Some like hibiscus and buddleia may need to be cut down to the ground. If you simply let them grow they will become leggy - like a group of very awkward adolescents who have no clue what to do with their gangly limbs. Many of your vines need the same treatment. Others, such as the climbing roses shrubby dogwoods with brilliantly colored stems need cutting back - but not wholly. With the colored twig dogwoods I usually cut out about a third to one half of the limbs on mine. It's easy to see which ones to cut - they are no longer as brilliantly colored as the younger ones. That happens. And those dull twigs have got to go, healthy or not.

Of course you are also removing any dead twigs and branches you may find. While you're at it, why not get rid of limbs that head toward the center of the shrub, or that cross each other. Open up the entire shrub for better light and air circulation and you'll have a healthier and happier shrub.

And now you pick up that rake one more time and rake the beds again. But don't leave yet. There is more to come.

More Weeding
Now you can see the soil. (At least I hope so!). Now you can see some plants that have spread beyond their boundaries. You can also make a pretty good stab at differentiating weeds from treasured plants. (I know, I know - I told you to weed paragraphs ago! But now that you have cleared out so much you will undoubtedly see more. Remove them.)

Divide and Conquer
As for those greedy plants, if you plan to dig up the excess and get rid of it, toss the extras onto that tarp. Otherwise pot them up temporarily until you see whether you might not have a use for them elsewhere in the gardens. Or save them as little gifts you can give to garden visitors.

NOTE: Do not give garden visitors things like kudzu, gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides) and Silver Queen artemisia unless you don't want them to come back. They may thank you now - but not for long. In fact, don't even compost those types of plants. Put them in garbage bad and tie it tightly. Paint skulls and crossbones on it and hide it from curious eyes. Under pain of eternal toil, do not let these plants escape. Burn them if you must but I would be nervous about even the smoke carrying some part of these insidious plants allowing them to reproduce once more.

Please notice - I have been going on at great length here about things to do in the garden - and I haven't even gotten to the good part - those boxes of plants that will start appearing on doorsteps all over any day now. My first box arrived today, as a matter of fact.

But here is the good news about all of this backbreaking work that you have just performed. Look back at the beds. What do you see? Space! Lots of space.

All right - don't get too excited. It looks like more space than you really have. There are still plants lying completely below the earth, dormant. Last year I underestimated the growth of my hostas and planted dahlias somewhere in their vicinity. They bloomed - but you had to lie on your belly and peer under a gigantic hosta leaf to see it for yourself.

But you do have a nice clean bed, weed-free and ready for your latest seedlings and shopping spree spoils. You probably also have calluses, an aching back and a deep feeling of satisfaction. And as soon as you drag that debris-laden tarp over to the compost heap and unloaded it you can go in and soak in a nice hot bath and sigh pleasurably at the prospects of more fun in the garden.

Because tomorrow you can go back out and start all over again in a different part of the yard!

About the Author Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.

About this Author