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first day of cleanup: a tentative start to a new outdoor season

REPORT FROM THE FRONT: I still can’t even find the hellebores and epimediums to cut them back—usually my first outdoor assignment of each new season. This is some seriously tenacious snow, at least up here on my steep hillside.

Down the road apiece, all the flat, wide-open fields of my farmer neighbors revealed themselves the last few days, but not here. Not yet.

Yesterday my beloved old friends from Windy Hill Farm in Great Barrington, MA, came anyway to prune the beloved century-plus-old apple trees, despite having to trudge through all the white stuff. We just couldn’t wait any longer. (And I can’t do it without them, as the top-of-page photo reveals—I think that aluminum apple ladder is a 12-footer, to give you some idea of how high up the climb would be.)

They took a stern hand to the Asian pear espalier on the back of the house, too, that I’d let have its way the last year or two or three (above). Naughty me.

I guess it’s going fast now, the meltdown is, and I actually located a little spot on the paving stones near the house yesterday where I could rake awhile, satisfied by the rhythmic sound of metal tines on stones, delighted to gather up my first 2018 tip bag full of debris (below).

I found myself laughing a lot just at the fact of being out there—despite having to waddle cautiously and clumsily on the slippery terrain, despite being confined with my rake to a tiny dominion. Liberated, at last (at least a little).

HOW IS YOUR SPRING UNFOLDING? Won’t you tell me—tell all of us—in the comments box at the very bottom of the page?

While you’re here, these other stories from the archive may help if you are a little farther along already in your own cleanup, or whenever you’re ready to prep some beds or smother some weeds.

Categoriesgarden prep
  1. Kathy says:

    I’m in upstate NY too and so want to rake the leaves off…but I *know* better :) Tulips, peonies, iris and winter garlics peeking up thru leaf mulch and old snow. The poor columbines are also up for the third time, having gotten buried in snow each time before. I weeded the 20-yr old asparagus patch on one of our earlier warm days before the last snow and/but see things other-than-asparagus coming up again…aaargh, how did that happen with all the snow??? And where’s my asparagus? Inside, baby leeks now 6 weeks old are wanting to try spending the day on the deck, but I’m making them wait a little longer.

  2. Deanna Clarkson says:

    Right now I’m limited to cleaning up what can be reached from the hardscape to avoid walking on soggy soil as the snow melts. Soon the huge pile of snow from the plowman will melt, and I will get to clean up the plants underneath which he completed severed from their roots, taking inventory of what survived. (:,*( I have as of yet to find the “perfect” marker for the plowmen, short of a 2 foot-wide concrete barrier.

  3. Mona says:

    Here in Louisiana, where it’s rangibg between 40s and high 80s, every day is an adventure! Now the rain has slowed me down for several days. Leaves are out on the trees, first round of bulbs and blooms spent, and weeds already a problem. Down here, we feel the pressure to get as much done before the heat and humidity sets in.

    1. margaret says:

      My new friend Travis from north Louisiana told me that, too. I am not much use in the heat and humidity, so I admire you and him for your tenacity as gardeners there.

  4. Linda Hoye says:

    It feels like it will never get here and then—boom!—it seems like overnight the snow disappears and the crocuses are blooming. Here in the interior of British Columbia my crocuses are all but finished and daffodils, hyacinth and tulips are growing like gangbusters. We prepared the vegetable garden beds this week and peas are going in in the next day or two. Spinach and garlic planted last fall are up and growing. Oh spring!

  5. Katie C. says:

    My yard is a soggy bog. I need to get out there but it’s just too wet. I know I have asked before but I never saw the answer, sorry: do I need to scrub out my rain barrel before I hook it up again? I will not make the mistake of putting cold pasta water in there again. Water used to clean veggies, yes, but the pasta water turned the barrel water brackish.

    On another note, we have three black and white feral cats that visit us. At least one has the clipped ear but I’m not quite sure about the other two. I think they are all males. My two stay inside.

    Yesterday we had cats, squirrels (darn them for getting into the feeders), birds including a pair of pileated woodpeckers, deer and a fox visit the back yard. Everybody is hungry.

  6. Haig says:

    I cut our hellebores back January 26 here in southwestern Connecticut (Zone 6B) during a thaw. Some buds were just beginning to emerge and I thought I would experiment with an earlier than usual pruning. This was much easier and safer than waiting for the snow to melt in March when there is usually significant new growth. I was reassured to hear that your hellebores are very late this year because mine are too and I’m hoping it’s not because I jumped the gun. Thanks for your report.

  7. Margaret says:

    Hi from the Gulf Coast of Texas. We had TWO separate snow days and now everything is starting to come back. We have chopped and chopped and trimmed some more with all the dead branches on everything. We lost our avocado tree and one hibiscus :( but yesterday i saw the first Plumeria sprouting up :)! The Bird of Paradise survived too.

    The peach tree was very excited this spring and we had several hundred fruits on the tree but after last nights high winds and thunderstorms I do not want to even look…

    Planning to start the cucumbers and beans next week. Happy Spring and praying the snow is done for this winter.

  8. Peter says:

    I think I was up at least that high pruning some damaged red maple branches two weeks ago. It doesn’t look high in photos, but it sure feels it when you’re the one doing the pruning!

    Feels so late to be cleaning up here in Rockland County, NY, but I’ve managed to prune the fruit trees/bushes and one of two rose bush beds (the other still had snow on it). Shredded many leaves from a few beds near the house, but couldn’t clean up in some areas properly because of the white stuff. At one point I was actually raking snow. But with company coming for Easter this weekend, this all had to be done. On the bright side, lettuce starts have been planted in the cold frame, garlic is up, peas have been sown, and I’m seeing signs of life everywhere. The snowdrops, purple crocus and dwarf irises are particularly cheerful and are a bastion of hope. If only the deer would stop eating literally everything.

  9. Jane says:

    I am desperate to get peas planted, and the kale could go out that I started in the house, but here in So. IL, we are getting rain every day. For years I have managed a system for using my car assort of a “hot house,” more light for my seedlings, but need sun for that. Lest this be too long, let me just say that I have only been hanging out with you and your fantastic gardening friends for a few weeks, but knew early on I wanted to get your books. They arrived yesterday and reading them is saving my sanity. I want to read fast, to get to the next thing, but every so often have to pause for reflecting on something just so right-on. So, thanks a lot.

  10. Ellie says:

    Here in the north suburbs of Chicago, where it’s often “cooler by the lake,” March has been unusually cold. At least we don’t have any snow, however, and the ground is not yet soggy. So I have been out giving the ornamental grasses a buzz cut, pruning the hydrangea tardivas, clearing leaves that plastered up against the fences or under shrubs over the winter, and carefully raking the mulch away from some of the hardier perennials that are beginning to peek out. Crocuses just started to bloom, hooray! The hellebores are up about six inches. On the whole it has been a painfully slow early spring. Sure feels good to get outside though.

  11. Sandy Lentz says:

    Holding back in northern Illinois. It’s been pretty consistently 10 degrees below average these past few weeks, so I’ve contented myself with starting seeds and supervising my tree pruning guys, clearing up windblown trash and a bit of shrub pruning. Want to give overwintering beneficials a chance to move out.
    Also took an evening to weed out (ouch) my garden folder, which holds lists of “I gotta have this plant” and other scraps. I found my note about the lungwort Pulmonaria rubra, leading back to your recommend for this plant. Used a source you listed, Joy Creek Nursery, to order. A computer glitch on my part resulted in excellent customer service on theirs.
    Finally, a brainstorm: how to expand an area devoted to natives in my “over farmed uburban backyard”. So long, one more patch of turfgrass!

  12. Jennifer Taylor says:

    Hello Margaret,
    Out here in the foothills of the Cascades, east of Seattle, the rain let up today and it will reach 50 again today. We’ve had a mild winter and I expect to plant dahlia tubers soon.
    I love the photo of the beautiful tree up against your house. Do you by any chance remember what color you painted your house? I’m planning to have my house painted this year and your color would look wonderful in my wooded neighborhood. Thank you!

    1. margaret says:

      Yes, the color is Benjamin Moore Tuscany Green (a solid-color stain version of it specifically). A very,very dark olive.

  13. Beth says:

    I went out on a cold and somewhat, cold rainy day Brooklyn last weekend. I stopped myself from pruning my weeping Cherry since I saw buds, I was afraid I waited too late and might encourage sprouts at this point. I’m usually out there in early March, but the snow stopped me too! It really needs to be pruned though!

    1. margaret says:

      My friend Dennis (a fruit tree expert) was here yesterday, and savaged the Asian pear. I am too timid sometimes. I think the fruit trees can take it.

  14. Alana Steib says:

    Deciding that Spring HAD to get here eventually, Tuesday I stomped out through 7″ of snow to pull the winter bubbler and muck out the pond, and install the filter/pump/waterfall. I built the pond 36 years ago and learned to try and have that done before the frogs and toads arrive and start laying eggs. How ridiculous, I thought, kneeling in deep snow and pulling leaves and other debris out of ice-water. But last night around 10pm the very first of the Spring Peepers showed up! What a joyous sound!

    Spring is really winning out there. And I wonder what’s been blooming under all that snowpack? Large drifts of snowdrops were just starting to open up the day before the first of the four Nor’easters arrived…

    1. margaret says:

      Funny you mention the pond Alana, because that sound of water was what I wanted to get going here yesterday….but there is a mountain of snow by the water’s edge and I fear a mishap if I go fooling around there. Maybe on the weekend.

  15. Ruhi Maker says:

    Upstate NY. Snow 80% gone . I Cut back the hellebore leaves to see the beautiful flowers hiding,winter aconite is blooming. Gently cleaned up left over leaves from around rock iris, some blooming. Cut back, Prune , clean, feed, repeat. March chores will be in April this year. Body contorted into strange angles to clean and reach the back of a some beds.

  16. Barbara says:

    Beautiful hellebore, rock iris and winter aconite all in full bloom – what a joy after this winter!
    Just cleared away the 45 tree peonies so I can feed them as they are budding out already.
    But the weeds seem to be doing as well as anything else! At least they can be pulled before they send out their seeds. Such fun to be out and listening to the birds.

  17. My garden in southern Wisconsin is still mostly asleep. Only the Hellebore next to the house is visible. Ground is either soggy or still frozen. So windy today that trying to cut back Epimedium leaves that are all brown and crunchy and let them rest in place is not going to happen. Another cold spell coming so who knows exactly what will appear when.

    1. margaret says:

      “Who knows” is right, Linda! I spied the first hint fo some epimediums today and thought the same thing — I could whack them but cannot really get to the compost heap with the debris without making a total mess.

  18. Yvonne says:

    In western New York the ground is very wet and mushy with rain this week and snow melting. Lots of birds singing and daffodil greens peeking out, the crocus have survived the cold temperatures of last week and probably the week ahead.

  19. Shelley says:

    We are not far from you, Margaret, and our yard is split into the “sunny” side and the “shady” side. We were finally able to rake out our raised bed boxes and rock walls on the sunny side as well as get to the birdhouses to do our good landlord duties! The shady side, well…. we are still battling 6′ of snow and sunglasses are a must if you don’t want to be blinded! I do have tree peony buds starting to pink up and swell. Im so anxious to get going… patience is not my best attribute :-)

  20. Joanna says:

    Okay, Margaret, I’ll admit it, I’m jealous! Due to our extended winter here in Minnesota (zone 4b), I haven’t been able to get outside at all. I’m busy starting seeds indoors and starring out the window at my snow covered winter sown milk jugs on the deck, and that’s how I’m getting my gardening fix. I hope we’ll be able to say “good ridance” to this winter soon!

  21. BethAM says:

    I did my spring cleanup right before the first Nor’easter hit us this month in Upstate NY. Still have one pile of leaves that I’ve been chasing around the yard all winter. Time to rake them back onto the neighbor’s yard, from whence they came! Snow still in the shady spots but should be gone by the time the easter bunny gets here. Now to wait as my clay soil drys out…(never really, until it’s a drought).

    1. margaret says:

      You smart person! I almost ran around cutting things back then, but we only had two days that were good for that and I didn’t — bad girl!

  22. Nothing feels better than being able to get outside and do thing or two. By the looks of that snow you will be able to do small bits of clean up as it melts away. Here it is wet with rain. I have been able to get out to do a few chores but just the past week we have had enough rain for the month. So if I was a duck it would be fine. I can see how over the years my garden beds have been built up. The paths look like small creeks. I don’t worry because when the rain stops the water quickly runs off or soaks in. Right before the rain set in I got 3 shrubs planted. Now that felt good.

    1. margaret says:

      Yes, Lisa, that “one step forward” kind of feeling, indeed. Today I swept a little by the patio. Not much of a chore, but something.

  23. Susan F says:

    In my first clean-up this week, I thought of you, Margaret, and your campaign to promote “messy” gardening. I had left leaves and debris where they fell last fall. Snow has mostly melted and ground is dry enough now in western Massachusetts, so out of two large perennial beds I I raked leaves into a windrow and then ran them over with my EGO lawn mower with the bagger attached. (My neighbors must have been puzzled to hear a lawn mower in March!) I dumped the chopped-up leaves into the compost pile – more like a brown mountain now. It feels SO GOOD to be outside working. Daffodils showing an inch or two of green.

    1. margaret says:

      Good thought, Susan — and I am likewise going to wait to touch the big outer areas nearer to the maple and oaks at the property line until a week of fair weather or so.

  24. Shelley says:

    Three solid days of rain on our spring break in central Ohio! Has been unseasonably cold, 10-15 degrees below normal and looks to stay that way through next week. Daffodils are blooming, that’s about it! I totally relate to your pacing around the house like a caged animal, just read that in one of your books! Glad snow is starting to melt there.

    1. margaret says:

      Melting fast now, Shelley. What a difference a couple of days make. So exciting. Now of course it’s wall-to-wall mud in every exposed spot, the next hurdle to wait to relent.

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