Slimming & Trimming Your Garden For Spring

Slimming & Trimming Your Garden For Spring

by Janet Macunovich

There are three things on an early spring's "must-do" list: edge, weed, and mulch. There's only one "should" and a "might" in the wings -- dividing and fertilizing, respectively. How much simpler can it get?

The Only Trouble is Getting Started

Just when do you start? Soil condition, not a calendar, marks time in a perennial garden. We all know when the soil is awake by reading the plants' reactions. You'll notice indicators of this season, such as the blooming of cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) and sugar maple (Acer saccharum). Crocuses have finished flowering, daffodils have broken the surface, and some tulip leaves are 2 inches above the ground. Let other people nurse calendar fixations, curse weather reports, and groan about spring not coming -- you watch the plants for the good news, because they never fail to advise.

Self-Starters Have the Edge

Caring for Perennials

Follow landscaper Janet Macunovich as she spends a year caring for a world-class perennial garden. Her experiences and tips easily translate to your own flower bed, while her month-by-month maintenance schedule will keep you on the gardening track throughout the year.

More About This Book

When spring does come, most of us are at least a little bit out of shape, out of sorts, and not accustomed to working out in the weather. Even after limbering up with some late-winter pruning, it's tough to contemplate putting knee to ground. The weather report on any given day in April may repeat the numbers from a day last November. We may have worked outside in shirt sleeves on that November day but recoil from the same conditions now. We wait, assuring ourselves that all of spring is yet to come, lots of time to whip the yard into shape.

Plants are not so fickle. On frostless days in late winter, roots grow, sap rises, and new vegetative buds prime for action. In early spring, green swells and builds like cumulus clouds stacking up in front. Trees, shrubs, perennials, and weeds are all included. The gardener who misses a ride on the crest of this weather system risks a whole season of catch-up.

A Single Load of Tools

My first step "on the clock" in this project was loading my tools into a wheelbarrow for the walk out to the bed. I brought my standard spring kit.

Spade with sharp, squared blade
Spading fork
Metal-tine leaf rake, adjustable for making a wide or narrow path
Five-gallon bucket
Short-handled weeder -- something for close work
Hand pruners
Sturdy knife

I also had five pounds of slow-release fertilizer in a one-gallon plastic bag, and a garden diagram and pencil inside a clear plastic page protector.

Clearing the Debris

The beauty of early spring is the uncluttered playing field -- just you, the barely sprouted perennials, and the weeds. Clear away the debris, and there's nowhere an interloper or problem can hide.

If the bed was well tended last year, cutting and clearing old plant parts is a breeze. This bed was in good shape in that respect. Only evergreens had been left untouched in the fall clean-up. Of the others, basal rosettes, 6-inch stubble, and stray stalks remained.

That had been enough to trap leaves and other windblown chaff over the winter. The stubble had to go so that I could rake everything clean. The evergreens needed cutting back to remove winter-killed branches, improve their shape, and encourage denser growth. I started at one end of the bed and began excising dead pieces, one plant at a time.

Cut Out Old Growth

Yellow blackberry lily (Belamcanda flabellata 'Halo Yellow’), penstemon (Penstemon barbatus 'Prairie Fire'), and lamb's ear (Stachys lanata) were the first to be groomed. The basal leaves of penstemon and lamb's ear are semi-evergreen, but the new growth was already sprouting among the tattered old foliage. I cut out leaves that spread beyond the new shoots but didn't nip the grass that had insinuated itself in the crowns. I did not want to overlook that later, so it and all the other weeds stayed intact for visibility.

There's no need to tease every old leaf base away from new shoots and snip it. Just cut all the remains to the height of the new green. Remember, the purpose of this cutting is to clear the field of vision for weed hunting. If indispensable new shoots are 3 inches tall, that will be an unavoidable 3-inch obstruction, whether old leaves are removed from the mound or not.

Excerpted from Caring For Perennials

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