Spring is in the air, and the warmer weather and blossoming trees may have you itching to go out into the garden to get your hands dirty! Take advantage of this time to do some spring cleaning in your landscape.
You’ll be creating a clean slate for your spring plantings and will reap the rewards of your work over the coming garden season.
Plant Clean-Up: Out with the Old, In With the New
Even low-maintenance native landscapes need occasional trimming to look neat and tidy (and to promote new growth). Trimming is best performed during the milder seasons to reduce stress, so now is an ideal time.
Freeze Damage and Dead Growth
The biggest clean-up job in your garden in early spring is removing frost-damaged and dead foliage from dormant plants. Periods of prolonged freeze and topsy-turvy weather can be especially hard on plants that are not acclimated to such extreme conditions. You may find significant damage throughout your garden, especially on perennials that were actively growing right before a freeze due to unseasonably warm temperatures.
Any dead foliage should come out now to allow room and light for the newly emerging green we all love to see in spring!
Is it Dead?
When deciding whether to dispose of a dead-looking plant, be a little patient. Sudden temperature fluctuations, ice and long periods of freezing can send many tender perennials into a prolonged dormancy. So, after this difficult winter especially, don’t give up on dead-looking plants right away. They may just take longer to regrow. As a rule of thumb, give them a season to bounce back.
I learned this lesson the hard way one spring. My two Mexican Bird of Paradise plants showed no sign of life, and I assumed the crazy winter weather had finally killed them off. I pulled one plant out by the roots and just cut down the other to about six inches from the ground. Within three months, the cut plant was alive and regrown to full size!
Now I firmly believe the horticultural advice to wait up to three months after a hard winter. So give it some time, and your plant may reappear more vigorous than ever.
Pruning for New Growth
Trimming your plants not only tidies their appearance, but it also stimulates new growth. Removing the growing tips signals to dormant branches that now is the time to grow, and spring really is the perfect time!
The branch tip, called a meristem, produces a hormone that is sent down the branch telling the other tips not to grow. By trimming the meristem, the lower branches will grow, creating a fuller, healthier plant.
Revitalize straggly perennials by pruning to maintain a tidier, more compact shape. You can remove up to 2/3 from plants like Autumn Sage, Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, and Skeleton-leaf Goldeneye.
If you haven’t already done so, also trim ornamental grasses like Lindheimer’s and Gulf muhly. Liriope and Mondo grass will look better if trimmed back to 2 inches before new growth spurt begins with warmer weather.
Wait to prune spring-flowering shrubs and vines until immediately after the blooms fade. These include: flowering quince, Forsythia (pictured above), Bridal Wreath spirea, Lady Banks rose, and coral honeysuckle.
Organic Weed Management
After the plentiful rain, snow and ice of this past winter, spring’s warmer weather means lots of fresh flowers. . .and weeds!
Cool season weeds actively growing now: henbit, Poa annua (annual bluegrass), hairy bittercress, dandelions, dallisgrass, chickweed, clovers, wild carrot, and pennywort.
Weeding is the never-ending garden clean-up job. But if you stay on top of the task you’ll be saving yourself trouble in the long run.
Hand pulling is the most reliable method around. Be sure to get the roots and remove the weeds before they go to seed. And don’t compost weeds that have set seed (or spread by runners) or you’ll risk reintroducing these into your garden with the compost.
In your flower and vegetable beds, be extra diligent about weeds. Young plants and seedlings can be stunted by the early competition, since weeds are very good at using up the nutrition and water in the soil while shading out plants you do want.
A thick layer of mulch will discourage weed growth. Check for low and bare spots in your garden now, and in addition to weed suppression, adding mulch will protect the soil from the coming summer heat and retain moisture through the dryer months ahead.
Finally, adjust your perspective. . .not all weeds are bad and need to be eradicated!
Weeds: Friend or Foe?
What some consider weeds, others consider valuable plants.
What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.Ralph Waldo Emerson
At my community garden in the fall, we planted common vetch as winter cover and used it as a green manure on top of the soil for spring planting of vegetable crops. Clover is another good cover crop since it adds nitrogen to the soil.
Butterfly milkweed is classified by some as a weed, but these have enormous importance for the dwindling Monarch butterflies (so consider adding this plant to your spring landscape wish list!)
Dandelions, with their long taproots, can improve the soil structure and deliver nutrients to the surface. Plus, the greens are edible (just be sure they haven’t been sprayed with herbicides).
Still others have pest repelling/distracting properties or can attract beneficial insects or maybe just make a nice groundcover in the right spot! And if nothing else, weeds can be good indicators of problems in the soil, if you learn what to look for.
So, do a little research before weeding, and you may just find space for some of these “weeds” – saving yourself effort and doing good for your soil and garden.
As with organic weed control, the best approach to organic pest control is to be proactive. Whether using a natural product or a mechanical approach (hand-picking!), addressing the problem early on is the key to success.
The number one thing you can do now is spend a little time daily in your garden observing, and you’ll spot any issues early on.
Fire Ants & Dried Molasses
Spread dried molasses early in the season to control fire ants; this doubles as one of your fertilizer applications for the spring. By adding molasses you are building up the soil by feeding the microbes.
Ideally, you want to apply the molasses just before a nice gentle rain so it penetrates the ground without any wasted runoff. I’ve used this method before and didn’t have fire ants for a whole year. You can read more about organic fire ant control at Howard Garrett’s Dirt Doctor site.
Odds & Ends
Here’s a quick rundown of some other areas you may have that could use a quick spring cleaning.
- Rake any last winter leaves from lawns and garden beds
- Empty debris from rain barrels and troughs
- Clean out all birdhouses and feeders
- Turn the compost
- Inspect irrigation system and hose connections
- Sweep patios and outdoor entertaining areas
- Tidy up potting benches and work spaces
- Clean and stack old pots (soak in vinegar to remove white salt build-ups)
- Clean tools with a stiff brush and oil/sharpen if you didn’t do so in winter
With your spring cleaning done, you can now get to the most fun part – planning and planting just about everything from perennial flowers to evergreens to veggies.
Ready Your Plan
Start with a simple plan, noting existing features and plants; then you can see open spaces and areas that could use freshening up.
When considering a garden design, keep in mind:
Mind the Weather
If you are planting in early spring, be ready to protect tender new flowers and edibles from potential late frost.
- Final plant size to avoid overcrowding
- Water, light, and soil requirements
- Color and blooming seasons for year-round visual appeal
- Wildlife appeal to attract birds and pollinators
With your plan ready and your landscape cleaned up, you’re now ready for planting!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published March 2014 and has been updated.