Last Plant Standing: Fall vs. Spring Garden Clean Up

One way to classify gardeners is based on whether they remove dead plant material in fall or spring. Mostly I’m a spring cleaner.

Birds and bugs are my primary reason. The other day I watched goldfinches feeding on the seed heads of yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), one of the late season sights I love. These and other seed heads are basically free bird feeders. And the tiny seeds left on the ground will attract sparrows and buntings in spring.

Joe Pye Weed

Sweet Joe Pye Weed seed heads in fall.

Plus, there are all kinds of eggs and hibernating critters in the stems and under the leaf litter. Let them be and you are more likely to have a diverse and healthy population of insects. This is a positive thing as it reduces the chance any one insect species will become a serious problem.

Some people  are very enthusiastic about the winter interest perennials can provide. Personally, I can’t really swoon over beds full of dead stalks and seed heads the way I would over blooming flowers. They do have their modest appeal, though. But winter interest is a minor factor in my clean up decisions.

Except for grasses, that is. Grasses do look good in winter.

Virginia Wild Rye

Virginia Wild Rye

I don’t leave everything up in the garden. Tomato vines are pulled up, as leaving them probably means more diseases next year. Also, my peony foliage is suffering from serious downy mildew by August or September, and it is  removed as well.

There are some disadvantages to delaying clean up until spring. If you grow plants with a tendency to self-sow, as I do, you may be driven to distraction with the zillions of seedlings popping up the next spring. This is an inconvenience  I’ve chosen to live with, especially since it ensures lots of new plants should I want them.

Rudbeckia seed heads

Rudbeckia seed heads

Of course, some people think leaving the plants up looks messy. When they lived at home my kids would complain about the “giant brown stalky things” all over the garden. They were particularly unenthused about the really big plants like Joe Pye Weed and Cup Plant.

However, I say that messy is in the eye of the beholder. A flower bed should not be empty and barren, even in winter. As for my kids, I advised them it is never too early to start saving up for their own houses.

So what kind of gardener are you: a fall cleaner or a spring cleaner?

The Fuzzy Wuzzy Garden, or I Admit I Was Wrong About Spring Clean-Up

When I was in first grade, classmates who showed up after receiving a severe haircut were welcomed with this chant:

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear,

Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair,

Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?

How sweet, you say, but what does this have to do with the garden?

Well, you may recall that I wrote in an earlier post about how I intended to cut all the left over stems, etc., into short lengths and let them stay in the beds where they fall, and that would be my spring clean-up. Brave words, these were. Brave, but also dumb. Well, mostly dumb.

By the end of March I had gone through the front garden beds, cleaning up according to the above plan. It looked like this.

Garden Spring clean up

The garden did not have the non-fuzzy Fuzzy Wuzzy look. It had more the look I had after the one and only haircut I got from a neighborhood barber called Ben. We had just moved into a new house, and I discovered there was a barbershop just three blocks away.  How great, I thought, and I strolled over to get a haircut.

Ben was in his early 80s, which is not to say there aren’t many, many supremely competent barbers in their 80s. It’s just that I later discovered that Ben spent the day in his barbershop not cutting hair, but watching tv and avoiding his wife. In any case, Ben gave me a haircut which my kids called “the tufted look”, featuring tufts of hair of varying lengths sticking out at various angles all over my head.

But giving my garden the tufted look wasn’t the problem. The problem was that in beds with lots of tall plants and dense growth, the quantity of plant debris was such that it was smothering the bulbs as they were trying to come up. The poor little grassy leaves of the grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum) were having an especially difficult time.

species tulips

Emerging species tulips, revealed.

So I ended up giving the front beds another haircut, and now they look like Fuzzy Wuzzy, who wasn’t fuzzy.

Garden spring clean up

They still have a modest amount of plant debris. And in the back and side beds, where the growth was not so tall or dense, I was able to stick with my original plan.

So where did all the stems and other plant debris go? Well, into two piles next to my compost bins in the alley. They looked like this after I stomped on them to make them more compact.

garden spring clean up

Maybe they will be eaten by the big pink blob crawling down from the upper left corner. Oh wait, that’s my finger. Will you be surprised if I tell you this isn’t one of Judy’s pictures?

Do you prefer the Fuzzy Wuzzy look, the tufted look, or something else in the garden?

Guess Who Came Early For Dinner?

You know when you’re expecting guests, and you are trying desperately to clean the house and get the food ready, and somebody shows up 30 minutes early while you are still shoving piles of papers and books into random drawers? Well, I had the horticultural equivalent to this experience today. I had taken the day off to spend some quality time with the garden, and my plan was to devote the day to spring clean up, of which there is a lot to do.

However, when I opened the door this is what I saw.

Forest Farm Nursery

Why, hello!

The two Fringe Trees (Chionanthus virginicus) had arrived from Forestfarm in balmy Oregon! These were 5′ specimens, still dormant, with nice root systems sitting in 5 gallon containers. Basically they look like 5′ sticks right now. (Note: today’s photos are Jason photos, not Judy photos, which means they aren’t very good.)

fringe trees in containers

But eventually they will look like this.

Fringe Tree, Chionanthus virginicus

Fringe Tree. Photo: Missouri Botanic Garden

This North American native is a small flowering tree that does well in part shade. It also has unusual fragrant flowers. It comes highly recommended by author and garden designer Tracy DeSabato-Aust, who uses it frequently in her designs.

The Fringe Trees are going in the northeast corner of the house, where I have just removed three hoary old bridalwreath spirea shrubs. These were nice when their white mini-bouquet flowers bloom briefly in spring, but otherwise were just blah. Plus they took up an awful lot of space without really contributing much to the garden.

It was chilly today, in the 40s F (or about 7 degrees C),  but the sun was shining. I decided I would get my new arrivals planted. Once extricated from their boxes, I placed them about 7′ from the house and from each other, creating a triangle with the corner of the house making the third point. Following current recommended practice, I didn’t put any compost in the planting hole.

Instead, I gave my new trees a good soaking. Then I headed off to Anton’s, my favorite Evanston independent nursery, to buy a bag of mushroom compost for top dressing around (but not touching) the base of the trees.

While I was at Anton’s, some kind of plant-buying chemical was triggered in my brain, which is why I ended up buying a flat of white pansies, plus a couple of four packs of blue pansies. (White and blue are my preferred colors in the woodsy back garden.)

Pansies in planter

Our wheelbarrow planter. Not sure how much longer it is going to last.

This was enough to fill my old wheelbarrow planter, plus the planter I built on top of a tree stump. The pansies will hang around until the beginning of June when I’ll switch to more heat-loving annuals.

Pansies in planter

Tree stump planter.

Bottom line, at the end of the day I had not accomplished nearly as much spring garden clean up as I had planned. But I was happy.

How is the spring clean up going in your garden?