Spring cleanup

The spring clean up of the garden has begun. I usually have a target date of the start of April to be mostly finished, and most years mostly is as finished as it gets. With the abnormally warm winter and way above average temperatures over the past week I’m afraid that I’ll have to prioritize and accelerate my plans.

I’ve noticed that the Japanese Forest grass is beginning to grow already, and if it’s growing then the other grasses probably are also. I don’t usually see any growth from the grasses until the end of March, but this hasn’t been a normal year, so I’ll have to get to cutting them back.

When miscanthus and pennisetem were first becoming popular in my early gardening years,  I disliked them (perhaps because they were the in thing), but I planted a few and grew to accept them. I read that they were easy to care for, and that the seedheads and brown stalks in winter were greatly admired, but I was never fully on board. By February the grasses were bent and pieces blew about the garden, and cutting them back in March was an unfortunate chore.

The brown stalks jam up the works on hedge shears and pruners, and even a heavy duty trimmer with a metal cutting blade became fouled every few seconds. Once, I became adventurous after reading that large scale plantings of grasses were burned, but the blaze quickly grew so that I feared for the neighboring plants (and houses). Finally, I settled on using a chainsaw to cut the grasses to a few inches above the ground, using the back of the blade so that the grass isn’t pulled into the saw. I’m not sure that I should recommend this to anyone, but that’s how I did it.

I’m quite pleased that my miscanthus problem has been resolved, so a present tense do has become a did of the past. Nearby hornbeams and Japanese maples in one area, and the Bigleaf magnolia have shaded the grasses so that they’ve faded and disappeared. No more chainsaw! Now, I have only the Japanese Forest grass, Northern sea oats, and a few varieties of carex that are no more difficult to clean up after than most of the perennials. Grab a handful of dead grass and pull.

A few shallow rooted perennials require a bit more attention so as not to pull out chunks of the plant, but most take only a moment or two. The Japanese irises are the most stubborn, resisting efforts to tug the brown leaves and requiring a sharp set of pruners. I’ve tried electric hedge shears, and these worked when the blade was sharp, but they dull quickly and who has the time to sharpen these things? Most of the irises are planted in shallow water at the edge of the ponds, so I have to be careful to avoid tipping into the water.

Cleaning up the spent foliage on perennials and grasses is the first priority since they are growing, and if the new growth becomes woven in with the old then the task is greatly complicated. All other chores are secondary, and these will be gotten around to when the cutting back is complete. This will take two days since the weather is superb, but if it was cold and drizzly it could take another weekend longer. With warm, sunny days the perennials will be chopped, then gathered and piled on the compost bin, and some woody stems in the firepit.

The second weekend will be for weeding, though I’ll dig out some of the many thousands of winter weeds while I’m trimming the perennials. I’ve done it again, and I don’t guess I’ll ever learn to fetch the hoe to grub out the weeds beneath the roses. In my quest for efficiency I attempt to snatch the weeds under the roses because I’m here, and why pass the weeds by, but inevitably I scratch and puncture and draw a bit of blood. The winter weeds would have been much easier to remove if I’d pulled them when they were small on one of the beautiful days in January, but I didn’t, so now I’m suffering my punishment.

Weeding is the hardest part for me. It’s not physically demanding, but there are many of them, and only one of me, so I feel overwhelmed that the task will never end. It would be easier to spray an herbicide, but I prefer not, and who knows where small bulbs and perennials are hiding. I’ve killed more than a few plants over the years by mistakenly pulling or spraying, so I usually crawl around the acre and a quarter garden pulling some weeds and digging others with a weeding knife.

If I pull enough weeds while I’m cutting the perennials I might finish the weeding in another day, but it will be a long and miserable one. Another day will be needed to clean up the piles of leaves that were left when I quit on the chore in November. I got most of them before I shut down for the winter, and the leaves that remain can be shredded in place without making too much of a mess.

There will be no pruning. Maybe a bit, but I don’t take the shears to the shrubs to shape things up. I don’t like shapely plants, I let things go to do whatever it is they do. There are no gumdrops in this garden, though there is one tall cone shaped boxwood that once was a spiral until I let it get out of hand, and a cone was all I could salvage of it. There’s no space in the wee small space between a path and patio to let the boxwood grow, so it will be a cone or it will have to be pulled out.

Every few years I must cut the roses back, but I don’t think that will be this year. It wasn’t last year either, so I suppose it will be next year. Once the roses leaf out there will be some minor pruning required to snip off some dead tips, which Japanese maples also require annually, but this is a task for April, even for late April, and if all goes according to plan you can see that I’ll be finished with the spring cleanup well before the end of March. It could happen, but not once in four decades of spring cleanups has it worked out as planned.

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One thought on “Spring cleanup

  1. My husband also uses the chainsaw on the large grasses – sure look raggedy until new growth overcomes the choppy ends, but saves much time. He also used the chain saw this year on caryopteris (I usually hand prune right after blooming so I don’t have 8 million of the little babies to contend with in the spring), and nepata and various other somewhat woody perennials I was too lazy to do over the winter. I’d planned on spending hours hand shaping mounds before spring growth…took him about 15 minutes.

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