Early Spring Cleaning


Hyacinthus orientalis


Hyacinths are waning, daffodils and hellebores have been in bloom for weeks, sedums are peeking forth, and I hereby declare garden season officially open! (At least in Zone 6 and parts south – Mainers and North Dakotans, tune in in a month or so…) 

For you Zone 6 and 7 folks, if you haven’t cut back your ornamental grasses yet, get her done! Fortunately for me, I have a very dynamic mom equipped with a fancy hedge trimmer, which made for fast work. I didn’t fully grasp how vital this was until I trimmed back a mature mass of winter grass at Rumours Wine Bar on 12South yesterday using a small hand trimmer — took forever, scratched me up like crazy, and boy, are my hands sore today.

When Mom + trimmer came by on an unseasonably warm Monday in early March (the 8th, to be exact,) there was already some new growth, so – note to self – earlier would have been even better.

That was our first official day of garden work for 2010. Since then, we’ve spent two more 3-5 hour work sessions pulling mounds of weeds (we’re talking 2 truck beds full) and cutting back any crunchy, spent perennials that I didn’t get around to cleaning up last fall: some sedum “Autumn Joy” stems, lots of Persicaria microcephala “Red Dragon” (which is lovely, but beware! It grows and spreads vigorously. Not sure if I would plant it if I had it to do again.), a few heuchera leaves, and an assortment of cottage garden flower stems I’d neglected.

We also did a little pruning. The best time to prune varies according to tree type, but one good guideline (for non-early-flowering shrubs and hardwoods) is that it’s better to prune in winter, when trees are dormant. That discourages sap flow from wounds and encourages the maximum healing of wounds once spring comes. Pruning in winter is also less likely to attract harmful pests to the vulnerable wound or to initiate disease at the spot. See this excellent Dept. of Ag. website for more detail about about how and when to prune.

Sedum "Autumn Joy"


In the late winter / early spring, we usually prune our three purple smoke trees (Cotinus coggygria) back hard, and I mean heartbreakingly hard. They won’t bloom if you prune them like this, but for some reason, the growth habit of my smoke trees is very strange, with uppermost limbs shooting straight and tall, with no branching. Hard pruning in March seems to encourage a bushier, fuller structure with a lusher profusion of rich purple foliage. 

Once the early spring bloomers finish flowering in a few weeks, we’ll prune our redbuds, dogwoods, and the lovely Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), a personal favorite of mine. I don’t tend to do major re-structuring of trees and shrubs unless absolutely necessary, just a little bit of balancing and trimming of branches with unattractive growth habits. (Or, in the case of one redbud, to remove the branch across the patio that is perfectly at my eye level. Fortunately, it has only gouged my glasses repeatedly, not my eyeball.)

Hacking down the grasses at Rumours


To the powers that be: thanks for (what seems to be) an early spring! (Knock on wood.) I hesitate to say this aloud, as Mid-Southerners will remember a spring here about four years ago when a full week of 80-degree weather in March preceded a week of low 20s in April, killing thousands of trees across the region that had been tricked into coming to life early, freezing and splitting their bark. I lost quite a few Japanese maples in my yard, and visitors to my garden, on a neighborhood tour that year, were greeted by black, drooping leaves on nearly every tree — a sad scene. Let’s hope this time, the early warming trend’s for keeps.

Happy digging!

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