Fall Clean-Up Spring Clean-Up

Spring in the Garden: Just Let Ma Nature Do Her Job

If your flowerbed looks a bit messy in the spring, just wait a few weeks. All the so-called refuse will disappear from view as plants grow back and fill in. Photo: http://www.thegardencontinuum.com

Question: Last fall, I did what you recommended for flowerbeds: nothing at all. I left all of my perennials and annuals as they were. Now that spring has arrived, when and how should I clean up the remains of those plants? As soon as the snow has melted? With a rake? I’d be worried that raking would damage the new spring shoots. However, there are too many dead leaves and such to do that by hand.

Vincent Bernier

Perennials and bulbs will quickly hide everything you might see as litter. Photo: Morton Arboretum

Answer: The most surprising with the “no-fall clean-up” technique is that when the snow melts, there really is little to no spring clean-up either. In other words, all the “cleaning” you used to do in the fall was just a waste of time … and harmful to garden’s plants, to boot! 

That may be hard to believe in earliest spring, when the garden seems covered in dead leaves and stems, but what is happening is that they are decomposing, turning into rich compost that will feed your plants. There is no need to remove this rich natural mulch: just let Mother Nature take care of it. At any rate, much of the plant waste will already be so decomposed in the spring that it’s no longer worth collecting. 

Besides, as spring bulbs push up, perennials start to grow and fill in and you replant annuals, what you might have seen at first as unsightly waste will quickly disappear from view. And anything you can still see will by then look like the mulch it really is. 

So, just let the remains of last year’s plants decompose where they lie, as Mother Nature intended it, enriching the soil and encouraging beneficial insects and microbes. Your plants will never have been so healthy.

If the stems of a few perennials are still standing, snap them off at the base or cut them back, then just place them on the ground so that they continue to decompose. Photo: gardendesignforliving.com

The only plant material you might legitimately feel you need to “clean up” in the spring are the few stems that are still standing, including the dead flower stems of perennials and the leaves of some grasses. If they bother you, just cut them back. You can simply place them on the ground in an inconspicuous part of the flowerbed so that they can continue to decompose. And if that doesn’t suit you, put them in the compost bin.

Carry out this “mini spring clean-up” when the ground is dry enough that you can step into the flowerbed without your foot sinking in. And certainly don’t rake the bed: the tines of the rake do indeed risk damaging the plants that grow there.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

5 comments on “Spring in the Garden: Just Let Ma Nature Do Her Job

  1. Margaret

    YES, YES, YES! The essence of laidback gardening. My front-yard ground cover (no grass – lamiastrumz) has already grown enough to cover last autumn’s leaves. Keep spreading the word, Larry.

  2. Esther R.

    thanks, I did just that. However, I also added a thick layer of mulch and leaves, I’d say some parts are 2-3 inches layer. Will my perennials all poke thru? I don’t want to be raking and cleaning the mess up. Like the lazy method!

  3. I am all for that, except that I will remove all debris below roses and fruit trees, as well as bloom that falls from camellias. Pathogens overwinter in such debris.

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