Spring is the best time to cleanup your garden. What do you need to do? How should you do it? What should you not do? In this post I will discuss early spring cleanup and point you in the right direction.
Spring is a special time for gardeners. The world is coming to life, and the warm days get our blood boiling – we need to get out there and do something. The problem is that at this time of year many people do work in their garden that does not need to be done and some of it actually damages soil and plants.
Spring Cleanup or Fall Cleanup
Most people clean up their garden in fall, mostly because this has been the tradition, but also because they want their garden to look good over the winter. The reality is that for the benefit of your plants, and the environment, you should leave the garden alone in fall and do the cleanup in spring.
For a more detailed look at the reasons for this have a look at Fall Cleanup Advice – Be Good to the Environment.
Protect the Insects
One of the main reasons for cleaning up in spring is to give insects a place to overwinter – they need the plant litter to survive. If you clean up too early in spring or too thoroughly, they will still be harmed.
In early spring insects are still in diapause (a state similar to hibernation). They are alive, but not moving. A little digging and you may find bees in the soil that are still waiting for warm weather. This is a time to leave them alone. If you must move garden material, do it gently and place it somewhere so that insects can get out as they warm up.
Dethatching the Lawn
Spring is the traditional time to rake the lawn and remove excess thatch but this can harm your lawn.
In spring the soil under the lawn is quite wet and walking on it will compact it, which is harmful for grass. You should walk on the grass as little as possible.
Healthy grass should have some thatch. It protects the roots and keeps them cooler in summer. You only need to remove thatch if you have too much. How much is too much? For cool growing grass anything less than 1/2″ should be left in place. You can find out more about thatch in Dethatching Lawn Thatch.
Don’t Roll The Lawn
This is an outdated practice that should never be done on an established lawn. Rolling compacts soil, which makes it harder for grass to grow.
If your grass is uneven, learn to live with it. Once the grass grows it will look less uneven.
If you you do need to fix it, do the following. In low spots, add no more than 1/2 inch of soil or compost. any more soil than this will kill the grass. The grass will grow through this and eventually be higher. If you need to raise it even more, cut the grass out, lay down some real soil (don’t use compost, or organic material) and replace the grass on top. Water well to grow new grass roots.
If a spot is too high, cut the grass away, remove some soil, and replace the grass. Water well.
Cutting Back Perennials
Perennials fall into two camps. Some fall down during summer and by spring everything is laying on the ground. I love these types since nature has done the cleanup for you. I just leave these alone.
Other perennials, have leaves or flower spikes standing up after the winter. For these, cut the bits sticking up close to the ground, with either hand pruners (the slow way) or manual hedge trimmers (the fast way). If the pieces are more than a foot long, I cut them into several pieces.
For some perennials, like daylilies you don’t even have to cut them – just pull the flower stem out and drop it.
Some perennials will remain evergreen over winter and are still green in spring. In some cases the old leaves slowly get ratty as new leaves replace them. Hellebores, Heuchera and Epimediums (barranworts) are good examples. You can either leave them alone and wait until the new leaves cover the old ones, or remove the old ones. Be careful you do not cut off the flower buds that are forming just below the leaves.
Other perennials like some grasses stay green all year, and they should be left alone.
Hopefully your garden beds are covered with leaves which you left there in fall. It is now time to deal with these. If the leaves are small and the thickness is not more than an inch, you can just leave them alone. They will slowly decompose and new plant leaves will soon hide them.
A thicker layer of leaves will need to be removed or it might smother the new growth. Do this early before plants start to make new growth, and be gentle with the rake. Add these leaves to the compost pile, or use them as mulch.
Larger perennials that are planted well apart from each other, like large hosta, have a lot of soil between plants. It is a great place to put excess leaves, even up to several inches thick, which helps to keep weeds down.
Spring Cleanup for Shrubs
This is probably the fist job to be done and it can be started even when there is snow on the ground. You definitely want to complete the job before leaf out.
Check each shrub and cut out any broken branches. Remove leaves from the crown of the shrub to give it a chance to dry out. Remove any winter protection such as plastic wraps or burlap – these should not be left on over the summer.
Check for branches that are touching or rubbing together. Remove at least one to prevent future disease problems. In general, remove the branch that points into the center of the shrub, and leave the one that points outward.
Does the shrub need to be thinned? If it does, go through a thinning process by pruning out excess branches. This topic will be dealt with in more detail in a future post.
A general rule of thumb for pruning shrubs is to prune the early flowering ones after they bloom, and late flowering ones early in spring. There is nothing wrong with this rule, but you should understand that the rule is for your benefit, not the shrubs benefit. If you follow the rule you will get more flowers, but if you prune all shrubs in early spring, it is better for the plants since you are not removing leaves.
Check Your Vines
Do your vines need to be cut back? Most vines can be left without any cleanup, but they will get bigger each year. You might want to cut some back to keep them from getting too big. Some vines, like wisteria, produce too much growth and need to be trimmed back at least annually.
Spring is a good time to prune back clematis. They fall into various categories for pruning, depending on when they flower. Look up your variety and prune accordingly. If you don’t know the variety, leave it alone – it will flower.
Any plants that are killed off during winter can now be removed. One of the best ways to do this is to just cut them off at ground level. This leaves the roots intact to decompose and improve the soil. By not disturbing the soil you also reduce the number of new weeds.
Don’t through out the soil in containers. It can be used for many years. If you used a soil-less mix, the level is probably down due to decomposition, in which case you will need to top it up with some compost. Mix it in well, and you are ready to plant.
Most people don’t know about subshrubs, because most nurseries and books sell the plants as perennials. Plants such as lavender, Russian sage, and some artemisia are not perennials – they are subshrubs which is another way of saying they are small shrubs.
Since they are shrubs they should be treated like shrubs – not perennials. In suitable climates they will not die all the way back to ground level. They may also not bud at the tip of last years growth. In my zone 5 garden they bud higher after a mild winter, and lower after a cold one. Since I don’t know where they will bud, I don’t cut them back until they start to bud – usually later in spring. I then cut above the new buds to ensure I get new growth.
Many subshrubs will not bud from wood that is too old. If subshrubs are cut back too far – they die. This is a common reason why some people have trouble growing lavender.
Half hardy Shrubs
Some shrubs are only partially hardy, depending on your climate. Some roses will die back to almost ground level and they should be pruned down to a new bud.The common butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) and caryopteris are root hardy in zone 5, but not branch hardy. Consequently, the top part is always dead in spring and needs to be cut right back to ground level.
Should You Mulch?
All gardens should have mulch on them, but early spring is too soon for mulching. Remember, the insects are just starting to wake up and crawl out of their hiding places. The last thing they need is to be buried in 3 inches of mulch. Wait until late spring when the soil is drier and the insects have left their winter homes.
Do You Need to Compost?
All organic matter from the garden should stay in the garden. As it decomposes, it adds nutrients to the soil and builds important soil structure. The question that you need to answer is, how will you compost the material?
There are two fundamental options; use a compost pile or compost right in the garden. Both methods work, but one requires much less effort than the other.
When people talk about composting they are usually talking about building some type of compost pile, or using a bin. In these systems, material is carried to a special composting spot, mixed together, and left for a time. After a while the finished compost is returned to the garden.
This method works very well but has drawbacks.
It requires a dedicated space, and let’s be honest, the pile or bin is not exactly good looking.
It is extra work – moving stuff back and forth, and turning the pile.
For these reasons, I prefer using the other composting method. I just leave things in the garden in what I call the cut and drop method. Every piece of organic matter is just dropped where I cut it. In spring hosta leaves are already on the ground, so I leave them right where they are – that is what nature does – and she knows best.
The flower stems that are still upright, are cut off so they form 1 ft pieces and then they are dropped to the ground. Dead perennial leaves that are standing up are cut off, and left in place. A lot of tree leaves are left where they are.
Woody branches may or may not be left in the garden beds. They usually decompose slowly over many years, so I move the larger ones to a wood pile. Smaller pieces can stay where they drop.
Rose clippings are definitely removed from the garden so that I don’t get poked by the thorns while weeding.
The other exception to the rule are very large grasses that make thick stems. I could cut them up, but that is too much work. It is easier to chop them at soil level and carry them away to a back corner of the property. In a normal sized lot (mine is 6 acres), I would cut and drop them too.
Using my cut and drop method, I can complete the spring cleanup for an acre of flower beds in two days – not including pruning shrubs.
Don’t Do These in Early Spring
In early spring the soil is still wet and most plants are still sleeping. Some jobs should be left for later in the year when it is warmer and the soil is drier.
- Walk on the lawn and garden as little as possible – it compacts soil.
- Leave the lawn mower in the shed – it compacts soil.
- Don’t divide perennials – digging in the soil disturbs soil structure.
- Don’t mulch.
- Don’t fertilize – it is too early for plants to use the nutrients.
- Don’t prepare new beds – the soil is too wet.
- Photo source for spring cleaning; Nick Youngson