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Northeast Gardening: Spring Cleaning Time

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Spring cleaning isn’t restricted to the house; it also has its place in the garden. Here’s what Lowe’s Northeast region contributor recommends.

Snowdrops are spring’s Act I chorus line.
Emerging bulb foliage unmistakably signals spring!

By Irene Virag

The green foliage of daffodils is rising through the mulch, and just this morning I looked out the sliding glass door of my bedroom and saw pure-white snowdrops dancing on the stage of the show we call spring. But the greening and glory of the newborn plants were subverted by the flotsam and jetsam of winter—broken twigs, dead branches, shriveled leaves, and remnants of windborne refuse.

It’s time to wipe away winter’s grime. And not just to wash the windows and beat the rugs. Spring cleaning is not just an inside job. It’s as important in the garden as it is in the house.

Chicken wire protects bulb beds.

There’s so much work to be done, and sometimes it feels as if I’m behind before I even begin. So I try to chunk it down, one task at a time, one step at a time. I start with a stroll through the garden to see what I’m up against. And I take notes as I go—an occupational habit acquired by decades as a journalist—jotting down observations big and small.

In most cases repairing, raking, clearing and cutting are the most obvious needs. Hurricane Sandy did in a fence post and much of the bamboo railing along our backyard paths. Incidentally, when I rake out my beds and borders, I try to leave the mulch intact so emerging plants don’t get a chill.

It’s time to pull up the chicken wire I put over the bulb beds in fall to protect them from marauding squirrels.

Cutting back liriope gives new growth a chance

By the way, if you accidentally rake up bulbs or uncover any that heaved out of the soil during the cold months, take a chance and tuck them back. Plants can fool you. There was the winter I tossed my dahlia tubers into a box instead of storing them properly. I forgot about them until I cleaned out the garage in the spring and found shoots poking out of the box. Obviously I’m not recommending this—just saying you never know.

And while you’re out there, if you see stalks of greenery and you’re sure they’re flowers, leave them be. Otherwise you’re taking a chance. When it comes to weeds I don’t take chances. I yank them. It’s not too early to start.

tied-up ornamental grass

Clean and oil your garden tools and planters before you start clearing and cutting. Spring is prime time for pruning. Cut down Sedum 'Autumn Joy', Liriope, and any perennials you didn’t tidy last fall, so new growth gets its chance.

And hack back ornamental grasses you left to catch winter’s snow.

cut ornamental grass

It’s easier if you tie them up before you attack them; you even may need a chain saw to accomplish the mission.

If you want your Buddleia to blossom into the butterfly magnet it should be, cut it down to 6–10 in. Trim red- and yellow-twig dogwoods as well as rose of Sharon and elderberry bushes, and target the caryopteris when the buds are wearing green. Also you can rejuvenate a lilac that’s lost its flower power by removing one third of the oldest, unproductive branches. You should repeat the process over the next two springs.

Cuttings from spring cleanup go into my compost pile.

But if anything needs a kindly cut in early spring, it’s the queen of flowers. Clean out the rose beds and prune plants, making sure to cut at a 45-degree angle about a quarter inch above an outward-facing bud.

Oh yes: All the while you should be dumping your debris onto a large tarp or into a wheelbarrow so it’s easy to take it to the compost pile. Don’t get me started on compost or I’ll never finish—it’s the basis of all good gardens. If you don’t have a compost pile, there’s no time like the present.

I still hate washing windows, and I have wall-to-wall carpeting, so I don’t have to beat rugs anymore. But after suffering through winter’s buffeting, spring cleaning in the garden is a joy. It’s my favorite kind of March madness.