Our last frost was January 11th and warmer than normal temps have allowed me to begin garden clean up. As soon as I can get out there, I do – there is much work to be done and I prefer to do it in small chunks. However, as I sit at my desk today looking out at the rainy day and the 5 yards of compost I had delivered yesterday, I can’t help but wonder if I have jumped the gun. Truthfully, it is early to begin this work. The soil is saturated and we are likely to have additional frosts – possibly Monday night. On the other hand, we have a string of sunny days in next week’s forecast which will be good for getting more work done. Temperatures will be colder than usual, which I can handle if it is not raining. My least favorite conditions to work in are raining and just above freezing. Makes for a bad tempered gardener (what are you chirping at bird?!)
Transforming the mess that I see outside my window to a flourishing garden must be done in several stages. First up, I take care of the storm debris and cut back the rotting & slimy perennials and squashed ornamental grasses. For things like the Hakonechloa macra, I don’t even need to cut – the dead foliage just pulls out (can I say how much I love this grass?). At this point, I leave any detailed evergreen perennial clean up (such as Heuchera) and pruning frost damage on my tender plants (such as Pittosporum). To early to bother – more damage is likely and I’d rather leave them intact until the new growth comes on. As I clear up the major debris, I spread compost. I don’t bother with small debris – this gets buried under the compost and rots. There are different perspectives about cleaning up garden debris vs just covering it to rot. I prefer cleaning up the large debris & leaving the small. Leaves are often part of a disease cycle, particularly fungal problems. So I get them out and replace the nutrients they would provide with compost. This theory of disease prevention only works when the compost has been produced correctly and pathogens in the source material cooked. Otherwise you are just introducing new pathogens. I also find that a thick layer of leaves just under a thin topping of compost provides a very inviting slug den and no need to make it any easier for these plant eating machines.
At first glance, the workload for this stage is overwhelming and with a two month break – I am a bit off my gardening game (right, bend at the knees, not waist). It is by far the most physically demanding time in my garden – and when I am likely to be injured. To keep myself mentally and physically intact, I develop a game plan before starting the overall clean up. I then decide what my goals are each day before I head outside. I also limit my time – the days of seven straight hours in the garden are over. Adam does not appreciate a monosyllabic wife as I struggle to stay awake. Worse yet, my joints & lower back threaten a full scale revolt if I don’t respect them more. Having a specific plan ensures I stay on task and get the satisfaction of starting and finishing an area. Adam and I team up – he hauls compost to small piles near my work areas (on tarps of course). It may not be the most efficient approach, but I like being able to look out the window at a finished groomed area and see that I have made progress. I find it most satisfying to focus first on the areas I see every day (entrance), while less visible areas (back of the back bed) tend to be addressed last. While doing this, I am always mindful of access so I don’t tromp through finished areas to get to others. Because commitments to client installations start in March, I try to have all of this major clean up done in my garden by the end of February – weather depending, of course. Nothing like a foot of snow to slow you down.
My favorite winter clean up tools include:
- a large collapsible leaf bin
- a small tarp that can be cinched up
- a knee pad
- a trug
- a small metal hand rake
- a large metal rake
- the “claw” (aka a hand tiller) and
- my Bahco pruners
The name of the game is keeping debris and compost off of adjacent gravel and hardscape (while not losing my pruners), so I usually work with the tarp under me and at the edge of the work area so I can drag debris onto it. The tarp can then be cinched up and dumped into the bin (hopefully not dumping pruners). I then leave the full debris bins for Adam to haul to our debris pile that just slowly decays yet never seems to get larger. The claw is used to loosen soil where I have strategically stepped. That’s right – gardening this time of year is like a game of Twister as I try to keep the foot traffic in the beds to a minimum since the soil is saturated. You know you have done wrong when you see worms fleeing across the top of the soil you have just compacted…
In early March, I do any needed spring pruning. Detailed grooming of tender plants, evergreen perennials & ferns follows as plants begin to put on new growth and the threat of late frosts passes. March is also when I shuffle and replace plants. This includes eliminating plants that are time sinks (based on notes from the prior growing season) and replacing them with proven performers for my conditions. An ongoing process of trialing plants and only keeping the best in an effort to reduce garden maintenance. April is feeding time as the soil finally warms up, also the time for hardscape repairs and improvements such as fresh gravel, and pot spiffying. In May, ah May, we finally break out the furniture & cushions…
Whoa, I started day dreaming for a second there. There are 5 yards of compost and 20 or so extra large bins of debris between me and the days of pillow plumping…