(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 18, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Spring is on the way, I hope. Hard to believe sitting here looking out the window at gardens covered with a couple feet of snow. By mid-May, the snow should be gone and tender new shoots will be appearing. This is the time to do a little maintenance. Once the ground is dry enough that you don't leave sunken footprints everywhere you step. Grab a pail, or a wheelbarrow in my case, and a pair of garden cutters and go for a little stroll.
There are two schools of thought on garden clean up. Some people do it in the fall and some, like myself, prefer this task in the spring. Let me explain why I prefer the spring. My gardens, well, my yard, is flat and open to the elements. The wind tends to blow away any protective blanket of leaves and snow. I like to leave the dead stalks and branches and debris to trap the above mentioned leaves and snow. They act like a mini fenceline, causing a pile up and therefore a blanket over my plants. Besides, fall is cold and dreary, while in the spring I can feel the warmth of the sun on my back while I'm puttering in my gardens, I like that feeling.
Now that we know why we're doing this in the spring, let's begin. You should be seeing some new growth around the base of plants like Phlox (pictured above left), daylilies, Helenium, feverfew, etc. I take my cutters and snip off the old dead stalks. I leave about 5 inches as a reminder of where they are and as a bit of support for the new growth.
Vines are sending out little green shoots about now too. Honeysuckle and Clematis (pictured right), among others. I never prune back my honeysuckle vines. Mom and I argue about this constantly. We have come to a kind of compromise. When they reach the top of their support and start hanging back down over themselves, I'll go and cut them back after they have flowered. I'll only cut back the "overhang" though. Same with the Clematis - I like to leave any old, dead vines as support for the new ones; it saves on twist ties and string.
Bushes, such as Potentilla, mock orange, snowball and Lilac are busy growing new leaves. I'll park my wheelbarrow and give them a really good looking over. I will cut out any branches not showing green shoots. In my zone, I get a lot of die back on the tips of branches. These get cut back to the nearest new growth. I am careful with the lilacs, they formed this year's flower buds last fall, so I don't cut anything until after flowering. That is a Buddleia pictured left with his fresh new leaves.
I tour the garden slowly, peering for any signs of life amongst the leaves. If I see new shoots, I will gently pull the leaves aside. If there is a thick covering, I will take a few handfulls and tuck them here and there, under a bush or around a vine. You will never see me taking a rake to my gardens. Especially in the spring. Some people do it faithfully. If you ask me, you do more damage than good, slicing through tender new growth. There is nothing as barren-looking, in my eyes, as a spring garden that has been raked cleaner than a vaccuumed carpet. All of those leaves and bits and pieces are mulch. They will help keep the soil moist in dry weather. They will feed the worms. They will disappear on their own.
The rose campions usually come through the winter here looking pretty rough. There will be a few rotten leaves to remove. Maybe the odd one that didn't survive the winter. There will be plenty of new seedlings to replace them though. Daylilies will do that too, so I cut them back to roughly 8 inches when they are finished blooming, except for the repeat bloomers. Those piles of mushy leaves I will pick up by hand, cutting them short with my handy cutters. I'll pick up old fern fronds, cut back the chrysanthemums, pick up any branches that blew off of the trees during the winter.
Spring cleaning of the garden should be relaxing. It isn't a "chore", it is a way to ease ourselves gently back to the land after a winter of staring out the window and dreaming. Refreshing our memories. Don't be afraid to take a finger and ruffle in the soil around old stems, searching for a new shoot half an inch down. Take your time, stop occasionally and breathe in the fresh clean air, enjoy the feeling of the sun's warmth on your face. Spring is here.
Many, many thanks to Wallaby1 for taking the time to photograph her newly emerging garden for me.