I’m all for a spring garden cleanup that saves me time and money. Toss in the added bonus of increased organic matter and improved soil health and I’m sold. Several years ago while working at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show, I was chatting up my friend Scott Stewart who, at the time, was at the helm of Chicago’s Lurie garden. It was mid-March and I mentioned that their compost bins must be overflowing with all the debris they were cutting back. What he said changed my approach to spring garden cleanup forever.
You know the drill. Cut, rake, bag it, haul it to the curb, repeat. The curb in early spring used to look like a skirmish line of lawn bags waiting for the garbage truck to haul them away. It bothered me to think that all that garden goodness would benefit someone else. I imagined the contents of my bags cooking away in some pile before another gardener paid a premium for bags of MY compost! Even worse, was I buying compost created from the very stuff that was hauled away last year? Maybe.
And even though I have a compost bin, it’s small and can’t possibly accommodate all of the previous year’s detritus. It holds just enough to make me feel good about not having to bag my entire garden! At least that’s the way it used to feel until my little epiphany, thanks to Scott. And if it’s good enough for the Lurie garden, well, it’s good enough for me.
Now, take a deep breath and brace yourself for what I’m about to tell you. It’ll be ok, I promise. Scott told me they simply mow everything down in late winter/early spring and leave it. Revolutionary, right? I didn’t know I could do this, that it would be ok, until Scott mentioned it. It almost felt like being given permission to go against the grain – a maverick in my own little garden world.
As soon as he said it, I vowed to never bag again. Unless it’s prickly rose branches. If you have a bigger garden, you can get away with the lawn mower approach. My garden is small and a lawn mower won’t get in those nooks and crannies. But that’s what pruners and loppers are for. Amazing how a simple conversation about composting can change one’s approach to spring garden cleanup.
Your next question, and rightfully so, is probably… “Yeah, but what does it look like?” For all you neatniks out there, this might be too much to handle and there’s nothing wrong with sticking to your traditional garden cleanup if it keeps you from popping anti-anxiety meds. I admit, that first spring after adopting the Lurie garden approach, I cocked my head, squinted my eyes and pursed my lips a few times assessing the “new look” before I embraced acceptance. For those of you with a looser outlook on what constitutes “tidy” spring garden cleanup, read on.
Anchored by a Centennial Blush magnolia, this bed is home to a healthy grouping of Matrona sedum, a smattering of daffodils planted by my daughters several years ago, a Stand By Me clematis inside the metal tuteur, ‘The Fairy’ rose planted close to the walkway and a plethora of verbena bonariensis that self sows every year. Everything, with the exception of the rose bush that gets pruned and its branches tossed in the lawn bag, is cut right back into the bed.
Instead of hauling it away to be handled by the refuse company, I keep all that goodness right here where it can decompose back into the soil and enrich it. It’s a win-win. No bags needed. And yes, it does take a little more time but I’ve found that pruning out the dead branches and then breaking them in hand goes a lot faster than using the pruners to chop into pieces. Just grab a fistful and start snapping. Do it on a day when you want to release a little tension. Trust me, it works and releases those feel-good endorphins much like when I’m drowning Japanese beetles in soapy water.
When everything is cut back, it looks like a bed of straw that in a matter of weeks will grow less and less obvious as the plants fill in the empty spaces. Last year’s garden takes time to decompose and I’m willing to wait, unaffected by the look. I wouldn’t call it untidy, just slightly messier compared to previous cleanups when I felt I had to pick up every piece of last year’s garden. Knowing that this little tweak to my spring garden cleanup improves the soil and saves me some time and money is enough to make it worth it.
So, are you up for a bit of untidiness?