what a mess! the realities of spring garden cleanup

helebore-cleanup-1IT’S NOT A PRETTY SIGHT, EVEN IN A PRETTY NICE GARDEN. Spring cleanup is a messy affair with more crouching (ouch!) and toting and dragging of debris than my post-winter body is ready for. But what’s the choice? And so we gardeners collectively face the music, and actually even smile about it, so happy are we to finally be outside. A look at my first tasks, in a slideshow capturing the reality of garden prep.

I work like a triage nurse: first identifying damaged woody plants and hauling off the heaviest debris from them, so I can get around with carts and wheelbarrows and start on finer work.

Next up, the urgent perennials: hellebores, ornamental grasses and epimediums (I haven’t gotten to the last one yet).

The vegetable garden gets a fast cleanup right away, too, and also a rough turn of the soil where cover crops are growing…all of which you will see better in pictures than I can explain, so on with the show (unless you want to read about my six earliest spring tasks in more detail instead):

Click on the first thumbnail to start the slides, then toggle from image to image using the arrows beside each caption). Enjoy!

  1. Carmen says:

    We got a lot of clean-up done last week. The weather was beautiful! We got so far ahead. But…my aching back and everywhere else! Wow!

  2. Johanna says:


    What do you do with all the woody things piled by your back gate?

    I pulled a bunch of fallen branches and twigs to my burn pile today. Then I lay on the couch for a snooze. But I was uncomfortable. What was poking my butt? Oh, the twigs that found their way inside my sweat pants!!!

    The joys of spring clean-up!


    1. Margaret says:

      @Johanna: Good question. It depends how much debris there is, and of what caliper the branches are. If I have a lot of losses of heavy size, I sometimes call a local tree person who has a chipper and have him come sometime for an hour when he’s nearby at another job and make me chips — if there is enough heavy wood debris, it’s worth it.

      Any good burning wood (like the apple or a maple or oak or locust…) goes to a neighbor who heats with wood — theirs for the taking. (Recycle!)

      If it’s mostly smaller branches (an inch or two or so in diameter) my neighbor with a trailer on his tractor helps me take it into the rough areas you cannot see just beyond the garden proper, and it gradually decomposes like any fallen branches in the woods would. In the most severe situations — when blizzards a few times have trashed many, many trees all alt once, we have a burn pile in winter.

  3. Brian G. says:

    That pine and that apple tree, ouch! That’s gotta hurt to lose such large features. My clean up this past weekend was a tiny fraction of yours but my back aches (and legs and shoulders). I also mulched from the half frozen heap that was left over from last year. I know you say mulching too early keeps the beds cool but I’d rather slow down reemergence than have to tip toe around plants. I don’t know how you manage to mulch those gigantic beds, even with help. Your arms must be verrry long!

    1. Margaret says:

      Happy spring, Brian G. Nice to see you. My neighbor Susan comes a couple of times a week and we have been doing this for so many years now, it’s sort of the dreaded, delightful routine. :) And truth be told, we have to walk into the beds, which is not ideal for the soil’s sake. I was just thinking yesterday how much I need to get some thick stepping stones and place a few strategically in each large bed…my little landing pads to work from. I should put it on the to-do list…

  4. Amy says:

    I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder — it all looks just beautiful to me! The losses are always sad, but sometimes make room for new treasures.

    My foxgloves from last year are very ragged and mostly brown. Should I cut them back? Discard? Wait and see if they green up? Thanks.

  5. denise says:

    I’m tired just thinking about all that work you do…makes my 150 sf of garden look like peanuts…it is something you have to be passionate about — a lot of knowledge helps, too.

    all I can say is…I’m glad I found you, maybe this year I’ll have more success in doing it more ‘right’ and follow your guidelines. Thanks!!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Denise. I am somewhat hyperactive, and also have a great neighbor friend who comes a couple of days a week and together we sort of have a system….not perfection, but the best we can do and nobody else seems to notice the rough bits. :)

      It’s very important in gardening to think in terms of triage or we can get paralyzed by everything screaming for attention at once, right? I am often on the verge myself, promise. But I have gotten better with decades of practice at seeing the most urgent among the many urgent things, and trying to force myself to plod along in somewhat logical order. The fun outweighs the frustration for sure. See you soon again?

  6. Sheryl at Providence Acres Farm says:

    I adore hellebores although I have none at the moment! I am hoping to rectify that this year. Thank you for the slideshow. You hellebores are just beautiful!

  7. Janel says:

    Lovely post. I wonder if you could tell me about a couple of things I see in your garden. (1) the chairs — they are so beautiful and colorful, but is there a story about them? Were they made especially for you? and (2) I’m interested in the fencing shown in this post — it’s utilitarian but also quite lovely in its own way — what are the components, it looks about 6 feet, is that right?

    Thanks, as always.

  8. Maureen says:

    Hi Margaret, took your advice and cut back my ornamental grasses. I have a question, is now a good time to split them and replant or should I wait another month?

  9. Janet says:

    Thank-you…THANK-YOU for an opportunity to win your book. Have looked high and low for it…but have not been successful. I’d love even a worn copy!!

    Thanks also for this lovely web-site…it brightens my week when I get the e-mail newsletter that grants an excuse to explore what’s new here. I just resigned up with my new married name.

    Thanks for all your encouragement!

    Janet in NC

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Janet. You are welcome. I am going to check to see if you are also “entered” (commented) in the other post, about the book. I am glad for your support, and encouragement. And congratulations on your marriage. See you soon!

  10. Linda Pastorino says:

    Hi, I wondered what is your best tool for cutting down the grasses. The old ones are so thick. Do you use a blade, clippers or electrical device. They are getting tougher and larger each year.

    Also what is your advise for getting rid of in the house what seems to be a never ending invasion of stink bugs (still left over from last year) A new group in the past two weeks has emmerged and in the house I get about 3-4 a day. They are on several floors including basement where I find the most. Any tips would be appreciated!

    1. Margaret says:

      @Linda: We just use pruners and hedge shears, but my friends use electric hedge shears (mine finally died, but they were great for the task). As for the stink bugs, I am inundated, too — really awful this year, several a day every day. I will have to go do some homework on whether there is a solution…

      @Maureen: If the ground is in workable condition, I say go for it. Not is you have mud or soggy soil, of course. I already moved a few shrubs here a week or so ago.

  11. Kelly says:

    February gave us more snow than we have had in the last 5 years put together. As a result, the snowload caused substantial damage to some trees and shrubs. The initial assessment was very painful, yea, I cried, then I got out the loppers, clippers and saw. Some branches were broken totally off and others broke and hung down or twisted and had to be pruned off. Most times, it was clear where cuts had to be made. Now after the clean-up phase, I am wondering about some of the results. For instance, should I trim nice branches on the other side of a small Japanese maple just to make it appear more rounded or let nature make those repairs?

    1. Margaret says:

      @Kelly: This is always so tricky. I wrote about my steps so far (I had damage, too) in this post. I am not doing anything more than what I explain there until I see the plants come out of their dormancy a little so I am certain what’s healthy and vigorous and what’s not. But yes, once I have the pulse of the plant, I will in fact do some re-shaping gingerly. Sometimes it’s hard to create symmetry in a damaged plant, so go carefully.

  12. Deirdre says:

    I’m ahead of you so I’ve finished with clean up but, this is the time of year when my laburnum, mountain ash, big leaf maple, and the neighbors’ holly try to reforest my garden. One of the advantages of pulling a few hundred seedlings every day is that I am close to the action. Nothing pokes out of the earth without me seeing it. The other advantage is that sometimes I find treasure. Seedlings of native flowering currant, oregon grape mahonias, and trilliums have been dug up and moved to appropriate places in the garden.

  13. TC says:

    Now that’s what I call gardening. Yes, doing all that clean-up work is all part of the gardening lifestyle; it’s not just a hobby.

    Do you listen to music while you work? And I’m not referring to the natural sounds of birds and whatnot. What’s on your iPod? Or iPhone?

    (Your site doesn’t remember sign-in info, why not?)

  14. Brenda Rose says:

    I like seeing all the work you do. Nice to know I’m not the only crazy who has a full-time job in the spring getting the garden ready.

    Ornamental grasses – I saw someone post here that they burned them rather than cut them, and I thought I would try that. I took out the propane flame thrower and lit a few and they went up in flames like paper. It was amazing! All that foliage, all those stray straps on the ground, just poof! I couldn’t believe how easy it was. No cutting, no hauling, no loose stems and strappy leaves flopping away in the wind. Each clump burned in about 30 seconds and since everything is so wet, there were no problems. If you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend it as a real labor saver.

  15. maria says:

    Still have plenty of spring cleaning (both in the garden and in the house). Decided to scratch off “spring clean house” in favor of wet knees and dirty fingernails. Family won’t mind and I am definitely happy!!

  16. Sharon says:

    I feel better! I’m not alone in feeling so behind in cleanup, some of which would have been done starting in January, but for that snow…. As for burning the large grasses, I had a friend with a large garden of only grasses. She held a big, flaming party every late winter, lighting them all at once in the dark. It was spectacular, but of course her garden was a nice distance from her house.

  17. Sheryl at Providence Acres Farm says:

    I got most of the clean up done last week while the weather was warmer. It feels good to get it done and move on to other spring jobs, like landscaping projects.

  18. Mary Ahern says:

    After looking at your spring cleanup I really need to stop whining.

    That being said, this is the first spring that I’ve got a bit of a jump on things. Last fall, for the first time, I mowed most of my leaves into tiny bits and put them right back onto the perennial beds. This spring the plants are pushing up through my ready made mulch rather then me trying to rake around them in a wild frenzy.

    Now I can be whipped into a frenzy just trying to prune all the damage left by the late winter storms.

    I’m so happy to be out there again, having fun and working out!

  19. Candylei says:

    Beautiful wood frames awaiting more soil. I do think I am going to have to break down this year and build raised beds too in the veggie garden. They add a nice design element as well plus better drainage. Yes, where is the hammer?

  20. Angela says:

    Thanks for reminding me of all the cleanup chores I have to do:) I plan to cut back the grasses, and tidy the sedums today. If I can still stand after that I will work on turning the compost bins. Look forward to your newsletter each week!

  21. jan says:

    I finally was able to get into my previously thick strawberry bed to find it mostly taken over by grass. Hand-picking the grass seems too time-consuming. Is there a way to prevent this take-over in the future?..thanks

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jan. As with all weeding situations, the best cure is prevention — to pass through the bed every two weeks and remove the (small) stray weed before it roots in. Also, to mulch regularly, and not let the mulch erode enough to give weeds a chance to take hold. Those would be my two pieces of advice — but no magic, I’m afraid. Some people grow things through landscape fabric or plastic sheeting, but I hate all that junk being put into the garden.

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