Some gardeners pretty up their gardens in the fall so everything is fresh and ready to go as soon as the early spring sun thaws out the soil and mulch. Many perennials benefit from extra winter protection when you leave them in place so I, and most gardeners, wait to prune, trim, pull, and rake until warmer days. Regardless of when you do it, dead and dried plant refuse needs to be removed before new plants grow.
|Time to clean up the beds and remove old plants.|
You want to cut away and pull the old plant material before new green growth because it's easier. You can hack it relentlessly and not worry about damage. If new shoots have started growing up through the old stuff, you have to be careful about cutting out the same new growth that you're trying to make room for. When you have a tangle of new and old growth intertwined, pruning out the old is more difficult.
Your perennial bed is a good place to start. Herbaceous perennials, the kind that die back to the ground every year, should have all of the brown stems, leaves, and flowers removed by the time green shoots emerge. When you begin to see new growth pull back the mulch at the base of the plant and prune it at ground level. You may find that the moisture from winter snow or spring rain has rotted the main stem and it will pull out easily, separating from the root cluster. Be careful that you don't pull out the roots by recklessly yanking dead foliage. It's better to cut than pull, just to be sure.
Any annual flowers in your beds can be removed at the same time. You don't need to worry about their roots because the plant is dead. Yank out the whole thing. If they are self-seeders, the seeds will already be distributed by the winter snow and wind so just toss the entire dead plant in your compost.
Ornamental grasses should also be given a good haircut before green shoots emerge. I advocate leaving grasses in place to capture the winter snows, but once the sun begins to shine in spring the dried grass needs to go. Start by wrapping the entire plant with duct tape or a bungee cord; this helps hold it together in a bundle for easy removal. Then use hand clippers and cut all of the blades a few inches off the ground. The grass can go in your compost pile or be spread as mulch.
|Cutting a bunch of ornamental grass.|
Spring is a good time to prune woody shrubs if you didn't do it earlier. You can see the plant structure and easily identify branches to prune out before green leaves obscure your view. It's important that you know what kind of shrub or bush you have before pruning. Generally speaking, plants that flower in the summer and fall are the ones you want to prune in late winter or early spring. If you prune shrubs that bloom in the spring, you'll be cutting off the buds that will produce flowers.
Some plants like lavender, artemisia, and buddleia bloom on new branches. Once danger of a hard frost has passed and you see new shoots growing from the base of the plant, you can prune previous years' growth. The new growth will fill out the plant and bloom. Some plants like hydrangeas, roses, and clematis bloom on old wood or new wood depending on the variety so you'll want to know what type you have.
Most evergreens require little action in the spring. If you see dead and dried branches prune them out as you would any other plant, but if they're doing well you don't need to take any special action.
It's a good time to clean up and replenish mulch too. The weight of snow may have compacted it. If it's in good shape, just rake it lightly to "fluff it up" and fill in bare areas. If the mulch is old or decomposing due to the increased wetness of winter and spring, add more. It's easier to spread mulch before plants break through, begin to grow, and get in the way.
Take advantage of the bare landscape to spot weeds and pull them out too. The moist soil of spring should make removal easy and young weeds are easier to deal with than old ones. Be sure a plant is a weed before pulling it. You don't want to yank out your yarrow because you mistook it for dandelions. If in doubt, let it grow until you can clearly identify it.
Any other non-plant material that's messing up your beds should be cleaned up. Winter blows in many unwanted items so do a little trash collecting.
With trash, leaves, dead plants, and unwanted branches removed, your garden beds will be fresh and ready for another season. It may still be too cold to put in new plants, but your perennials will be ready for action in a clean home.
|New herbs will be growing soon once they have room.|
Like a painter with a fresh canvas, bare beds allow you to envision the colors and scenery that will emerge. The fresh, clean look provides a opportunity to study your garden and think about additions or changes. Note how the plants grow as they wake from their winter slumber. You may have had some losses and will need to plant replacements or new choices.
It all begins with last year's shriveled and dead plants being removed. For many gardeners that action signals the start of the new season. Regardless of your motivation, it gets you outside and gets your hands dirty. Whatever the season, I enjoy the contact with my garden. It's time to get gardening.