Sunday, April 09, 2006

Spring Cleaning

Personally, I don't do spring cleaning, at least not indoors. Since I leave most of the spent foliage on my perennials over the winter, though, there's lots to do outside in March and April.

Just about every border in my garden has some very early spring or late winter flowers, so it's almost impossible to rake the beds out in spring for a tidy look. My solution is to accept that tidiness won't be part of my garden - there will always be dead leaves here and there. I rake the areas that I can do safely, but because I use mulch, even these areas get only the lightest touch of the rake. Other areas get cleaned by hand, or by glove. Timing is everything; some plants, like species tulips and some early allium, really suffer from having leaves on them - the emerging foliage spears through the rotting leaves and literally strangles in the small hole it's made. I try to remember where these plants are, and clean out those areas as early as I can. We tend to have cold damp springs on the Cape, so by the second week of April I'm already feeling like I'm behind in the cleanup.

As an area is cleaned, it can get a top-dressing of compost, if any is available. Sometimes I apply coffee grounds, which I get in 5-gallon buckets from a local shop. The worms love it, and apparently it doesn't acidify the soil appreciably. Coffee is acidic, but once it's been brewed the grounds are essentially neutral. The down sides are that the buckets are heavy and too many people drink that revolting hazelnut-vanilla-mocha stuff, so the smell can be unpleasant for a day or so after application.

I have lots of old foliage to cut back in spring, and for some plants it's critical not to rush this procedure. Gaura, Salvia, Russian Sage (Perovskia), lavender and the other subshrubs strenuously obect to having their foliage cut before new growth appears at the woody base of the plant. I love the look of these dormant beauties anyway, especially the bare stems of gaura, which is almost grass-like by this time of year. One problem child in the group is Lavender Cotton (Santolina) which looks like hell and takes forever to begin to leaf out. Instead of a silvery grey look, like lavender, its leaves and stems area dull brown now. It's hard to know when or where to cut this plant; I'd shovel-prune it if it didn't earn its keep with that great scented silvery foliage in summer in my dry garden.

This is also the time to cut back summer-blooming shrubs like wigela and some of the viburnums. There is a row of American Cranberry bush Viburnum waiting to be severely cut back - it's one of those "good plant, bad place" situations where I simply picked the wrong variety for the location. I don't know if these can be moved, and in any case the imminent arrival of the Viburnum Leaf Beetle tells me these plants may not be long for this world.

There's also a red wigela waiting to be stooled, or cut to the ground. It's a lovely, reblooming shrub, it has sufffered this treatment before and come back beautifully. I could simply cut out a third of the stems evey year, but it's difficut to get into the center of the shrub where the oldest stems are lurking, so I cut it to the ground evey five or six years instead.


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