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Spring Cleanup Advice – Do it Right

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 advice for your garden

Spring cleanup advice for your garden

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This is an outdated practice that should never be done on an established lawn.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.

Spring cleanup for perennial grasses

Perennial grasses that have dead tops can be cut to a few inches above soil level, by Robert Pavlis

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.

 

 

 

 

 

spring garden cleanup for hosta

Hosta leaves can be left where they are. Cut the flower spikes to ground level and leave them. Long pieces can be cut into smaller ones so they are not as obvious, by Robert Pavlis

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.

 

 

Evergreen Perennials

spring garden cleanup for hellebore

Hellebores are evergreen here, but the old leaves don’t look great in spring, by Robert Pavlis

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.

Spring cleanup for ferns

Some ferns are evergreen, but the snow tends to break the stems. They can be left as is or cut off, by Robert Pavlis

Raking Leaves

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.

Annuals

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.

Containers

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.

Subshrubs

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.

Cut and drop composting #1

Garden after clipping all the old perennials back and dropping the cut material, Aspen Grove Gardens

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.

Cut and drop composting #2

Using the cut and drop method, by mid summer none of the dropped organic material is visible, Apsen Grove Gardens

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.

 

References:

  1. Photo source for spring cleaning; Nick Youngson

 

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Robert Pavlis
Editor of GardenFundamentals.com
I live in southern Ontario, Canada, zone 5 and have been gardening a long time. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

I hope you find Garden Fundamentals an educational site that helps you understand your garden better.

13 Responses to 'Spring Cleanup Advice – Do it Right'

  1. Susylee says:

    Hi Robert, I have a very tiny lawn area facing south/east in Australia. Knowing it will never be perfect whilst I have my dear old greyhound watering it, but whilst he is can or is there something i can do in the colder months to help prevent die back from his urine? I do keep a water bucket & hose handy to dilute any urine, sadly this didn’t work through the cooler months as the lawn is dormant. The local garden person has me using a fertaliser with something in it to help with the acidification. Should I start fresh with a new lawn? This old one (even so small) is a lot of work in summer to keep it looking nice. Desperate help needed please…

    • Watering after urination is the only thing you can do. Since that is not working you can either get rid of the dog or the lawn. Replacing the lawn is not going to work – in no time it will be just as bad.

  2. millie Skrtich says:

    I like your approach cut and drop.

    What is best method to get rid of grass next to chain fence and especially bindweed later on?
    Thank you.
    Millie

    • Don’t have grass next the fence 🙂 I’d have a bed on my side of the fence, and use a 2×4 on edge, mostly buried, at the back of the bed to prevent the grass from next door growing into my new bed.

      Bind weed is another problem – it can travel long distances underground. If it is coming from the other side of the fence you will always have it – that was my problem at my last home. If you pull it religiously as soon as you see green you can keep it under control. You can also paint Roundup on the leaves which will also kill some of the roots on the neighbors side, but it will likely not get rid of it because the plants on the other side will grow back.

  3. Michal Jusyk says:

    Dear Mr Pavlis,

    My wife insists that I do it in order to get rid of moss that growing in between grass, possible colonizing areas where more lawn could grow. And I try to resist… Although such procedure supplemented with grass seeds ended with a better, dense lawn with less weed and moss.Regarding our lawn – it’s 1.5y old, no thatch as far as I can see.

    I’d be grateful for an advice or a link to one of your articles about such matters (I’ve already read ones about thatch – and believe I should not do it, and it’s not due to laziness but actual impact on the lawn itself).

    So, would you provide me with a some tips, ideas, arguments not to dethatch and keep my spouse happy?

  4. Kriss Gandier says:

    Hi Robert. Thanks for the information. We are forming a new garden club in Cambridge called the Cambridge Area Horticultural Society an d are just finishing getting incorporated. We hope to start open garden tours later in May. We are looking for interesting speakers for meetings as well as ideas for garden tours. Would you be open to having a bus tour or open garden tour of your gardens. They sound lovely on 6 acres of land. It must be an amazing garden that you have. Would there be any interest in you being a guest speaker once we get our meetings organized?
    Kriss Gandier

  5. I’m glad I read your post! I did not know about allowing the insects and bees to come up from the gardens. I laid sown some heavy layers of leaves in a couple of areas. I’m going to remove them today!.

  6. Chris says:

    Wondering about the ‘don’t roll the lawn’ rule — it was a weird winter – lots of freeze-thaw going on throughout January – March and, as a consequence, soil and grass in the acre or so of ‘lawn’ I have has really heaved in many places. In the garden I’ve been going around pushing fall planted perennials back into the ground; in the yard I’m thinking I need to get a roller…

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