Spring Cleanups, Intrigue, and Discovery

All through March and early April, the anticipation builds. Finally, it’s time to start the spring cleanups.  The worst of the late-winter rains are over, and the ground has begun to dry out. You can hear the buzzing of the insects, which means they have emerged from the stems and litter that you left in the garden all winter.

The sun is shining as you haul out your bucket, clippers, and gloves. The first round will be cutbacks, to be followed in a couple of weeks with a thorough weeding. You decide to start with the Glory Garden, which you can see from the living room window.  You want to see the daffodils and the emerging green without being cluttered by brown.

Some plants, like sedum Autumn Joy, need to be clipped back to the emerging growth. 

The green of the sedum Autumn Joy looks so much better without the brown stems!

Others, like the catmint and sundrops, have stems so thin they just break off. The thicker stems of the natives – penstemon, goldenrod, monarda – can be snapped off with a gloved hand. Soon, your bucket is full enough to dump it in the new compost pile.

Meanwhile, the best part of the spring cleanup is happening alongside this practical work.  What is the best part? It’s the examination of each plant in detail, asking how it is doing and how the winter treated it. It’s the discovery of changes in the garden,  and which plants survived last year’s drought and the February cold snap, and which might need replacing.

You take a close look at the elderberry that you planted last June and watered throughout the drought.  The rabbits got a few lower branches, but you marvel at the new growth and the emerging flowers. You remind yourself to put up a little bit of fencing to let some new branches emerge and fill out the shrub structure.

This is a golden-leaf elderberry (Sambuca racemosa ‘Lemony Lace’), a cultivar of a shrub that is native in the southeast and south central US, as well as Europe and Asia. This is planted in a protected spot near the house so it should do well there.

You also look at the Virginia sweetspire shrub, which has survived for several years but not really thrived, and you become anxious.  There is only one stem showing new leaves. But some stems are reddish and those might be tiny buds beginning to swell.  You decide to wait a few weeks and check back, and in the meantime begin thinking about what to put in that space if the sweetspires didn’t make it.

The slightly out-or-focus stem of Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginiana) is in the foreground.

At the other end is the red monarda which is such a bright spot in July and August.  This plant has a tendency to wander, so it’s always interesting to see where it will grow this year.  It is confined to a 5×8’ section; in the back of this section. its companion is some bearded iris, which also move around.  So far, they seem to be doing well together. And look, there’s a new rosa rugosa emerging at the back – it has migrated clear across the yard, probably thanks to a chipmunk.  You are going to let it grow for a while – maybe this is a good place for a new shrub?

The small green seedlings are a bee balm (Monarda didyma ‘Cambridge Scarlet’) is a cultivar of a native plant, but it is still attractive for pollinators. The hummingbirds come by often as well.

The native hardy geranium has popped up, and you hope it blooms this year.  The goldenrod looks like it has spread a bit, and in a month or so you will decide whether to pull it back to its original space. The amsonia has emerged and you can already see the beginnings of its flowers, which will bloom in late May.

This is Eastern bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana), which blooms early and has gorgeous light blue flowers.

Several years ago, you planted a burgundy-leaf penstemon, Dark Towers.  It spread by seed and you had to dig a lot of it up.  But the seed stayed in the soil, so it has come up in patches ever since.  This year, it’s heartening to see a nice new stand of it emerging – not in the same position as the original planting, but it looks interesting anyway. You might need some small plants to fill in around them – your living mulch to prevent weeds.

The common name for this plant is beardtongue, but its botanical name is pretty easy – Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’. The green leaves on the left are the species penstemon. Both produce cloud-like clusters of white flowers in June.

Spring cleanups are as invigorating for the gardener as they are for the garden.  You have gotten re-acquainted with your plant friends and are assured that all is mostly well. You are ready for another year of helping this garden thrive.


      • I have noticed that once the plants are up to around 8″ tall the rabbits don’t bother them….so I break the stems off so they are about 6″ tall and then they are pretty much invisible by the growing plants. It I have any extra time, I will go in and just pull up the loose old stalks.


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