by Carol Wallace
Every year at this time, I find myself singing that song from the old Sondheim musical, Company."Step by Step"
And that's because every fall I leave a lot of dead annuals in place, a lot of perennials untrimmed and more. I tell myself that, as weary as I am with garden chores now, is how excited I will be for any excuse to get out into the garden when spring comes.
Every year, I believe myself. And every spring, I rush out to the garden on that first warm, sunny day, to make my inspection. At that point, I am usually tempted to go into hibernation. The amount of work out there looks insurmountable.
It's not. But one would go quietly crazy even considering the task as a whole. Instead, we break it down into steps. Some people like to approach spring cleanup one chore at a time. That way they can set out each day with a tool or two - no more - and break themselves in gradually. As I said - step by step.
Others (myself included) prefer to go at it garden by garden. That way, at the end of a day's work we can look back and get some sense of accomplishment.
Right now, my gardens are full of dead foliage, worn out mulch, and the detritus of hundreds of now dormant perennials and long-departed annuals. There seem to be hundreds of shrubs in need of pruning; climbers in need of restaking and more - all of which must be finished before I can take trowel in hand and start to dig up, divide and replant. Step by step by step.
The first step should be tiny.
Our gardening muscles are not yet limbered up. So we need to do something satisfying but not too strenuous. Warm-up gardening. For me this means pruning the Japanese maples. Getting rid of the tiny dead twigs, cleaning up crossed branches, opening up the center of each small tree to permit the air to circulate. Tiny trimmings pile up around me, but they can wait - there is much that will need to be raked so I may as well save it.
With the maples trimmed, I move to other trimming jobs. Many of last year's perennials still have dead flower stalks pointing skyward. Dead daylily scapes pull out easily, but hostas want to play tug of war. I don't fight - I get out my pruners and cut those, and the old stalks of Sedum down to the ground. Remember - it's early and we are still taking it easy.
Pulling up the dead annuals tends to be easy, too. Things start to look a bit more manageable with those added to the littered ground.
And finally, I take my loppers and head for the roses and red-twigged dogwoods.
Work up to something more strenuous.
I am always tempted to do roses before I do anything else - they seem to grow tentacles over the winter that will reach out and take prisoners of all unwary passers-by. But I don't want to have to rake more than twice - after the pruning chores, and once more to remove smaller trimmings and exhausted mulch. One cannot escape the post-rose raking because without it we might find ourselves unable to escape the rose trimmings at all.
Rose pruning, like the trimming of the Japanese maples, would be pleasant work if it weren't for the thorns. The principle is similar but at the same time more drastic. When I am done pruning roses I always have this lurking fear that I have overdone it and shall have only the puniest rose display that year. And every year, drastic works beautifully.
The pruning itself isn't too strenuous - but manipulating self and rake so as not to become permanently entangled can be tricky and tiring. I suggest a rest and a nice cup of tea of coffee while you contemplate what you have accomplished so far. And while you anticipate how much better (but more bare!) it will look when you have raked all that debris away.
If you have shrubs grown for their colored twigs, you will want to selectively prune these, too. Take out the oldest, thickest branches - you will be able to see quite easily that these no longer have the brilliant color of newer growth. Once again, take out crossed branches and those growing toward the center. Open the shrub up for air circulation while retaining some good, young and colorful twigs.
If you are lucky, you have a chipper/shredder to feed all these prunings to. You can take from the garden and then turn your takings into something that will give back to the garden - a most satisfying example of recycling. But at the least, you will want to somehow drag all the debris you are creating to the compost heap.
Fine Tuning - a Pause that Refreshes
By now you should be able to feel a glimmer of hope. And, having raked once, you probably also see a lot of dead and dried foliage. Some of it will be attached to green plants - this is a good time, for instance, to trim back heaths that have been blooming through the winter. Lavender, sage and other sub-shrubs benefit from a spring haircut - cutting them down to within a few inches of the ground. Don't cut into woody, deadlooking stuff - it won't do anything even with coaxing. Just remove the dead stuff.
Then comes a part I truly enjoy. In fall I leave the foliage on my daylilies to act as winter mulch. That foliage looks truly hideous in spring - but when you remove it you are greeted by numerous little spring-fresh green fans, all peeking up and ready to spring into action.
The hellebores are blooming madly now - but the foliage surrounding them is all dried and ratty looking. Cut that off and you have this amazing cluster of flowers, with nothing to impede your line of sight. In fact, take a look around you at all kinds of tattered foliage and be ruthless. Out it goes! The same goes for Epimedium.
Most of this work is so easy that it requires only small pruning shears - in fact, I've been known to use my kitchen scissors for some of this work.
And then it's time to rake again. This time you want to get rid of your trimmings - and also all of the dead leaves and other debris that have collected in the beds over winter.
Then the Fireworks
Many of you can go this far and declare your spring clean up finished. But those of who grown ornamental grasses have one step left.
Last year I tied a cord around my grasses to secure it into a huge, vertical bundle, and then my husband took the chain saw and cut them down to about 1 foot high. This worked reasonably well, but the brittle blades of dried grass tended to shatter, leaving a trail of debris everywhere, despite the bundling. This year we are going to do what the local nursery does and burn them. (That's why I raked up other dead and dried stuff first - I don't want that fire spreading!) Burning will eliminate the dried and dead part of the grasses, but leave the new, green growth that is emerging alone.
And that's the show. Step by step, we have cleared away the remnants of winter and can now see new growth emerging everywhere. We can also see weeds and bare spots - places to plant, plants that need dividing and relocating. But those are all steps in another process - and I'm already exhausted contemplating just this much.
So, until later - HAPPY SPRING!!!!
About the Author
Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening sectionof Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.