Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: Back to the garden

  • Signs of spring in garden plots at the Northampton Community Gardens, where last year’s growth is waiting to be removed and new growth is emerging. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Deadheads offer foraging opportunities, and hollow stalks can harbor beneficial insect eggs for the garden. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Signs of spring in garden plots at the Northampton Community Gardens, where last year’s growth is waiting to be removed and new growth is emerging. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Perennials springing back to life are among the signs of spring in garden plots at the Northampton Community Gardens, where last year’s growth is waiting to be removed and new growth is emerging. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Signs of spring in garden plots at the Northampton Community Gardens, where last year’s growth is waiting to be removed and new growth is emerging. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gloria Santa Anna prunes a Butterfly Bush in her garden plot at the Northampton Community Gardens while Iris Reticulata blooms. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 4/7/2022 2:18:36 PM
Modified: 4/7/2022 2:17:34 PM

Spring is here (at least by the calendar if not the weather) and the first crocuses and daffodils are blooming everywhere. Meanwhile, under the dead leaves and dried stalks, tiny promises of green are bursting forth.

Like all my fellow gardeners, I’m eager to clear out the remnants of last year’s garden and make room for new life to flourish. It’s hard to resist the urge to get out into the garden, but there are important reasons not to rush it.

First, don’t walk on your garden or work the soil until the ground has fully thawed and dried out sufficiently. If you tread in the garden when it’s soggy you will compact the soil, rendering it brick-like and unable to support plant life.

This follows for lawns as well. Here’s the advice of Elsa Bakalar, one of my favorite garden writers: Take a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball. If the ball crumbles, it’s safe to dig. But if the ball holds its shape, wait a few more days and try again. Your patience will be rewarded.

There was a time not so long ago when gardeners routinely cut back their gardens to the ground in the fall so that when spring arrived they would be ready to get a jump on the growing season. (I confess that I enjoyed the sense of seasonal finality that came with cutting back the entire garden and putting it to bed for the winter.) Those who left cleanup until spring chided themselves for procrastinating. But it turns out those slackers had the right idea.

There are important ecological benefits to leaving the garden in its unkempt state until warm weather returns. Seed heads on echinacea, rudbeckia and other perennials feed birds through the winter. And the winter garden provides valuable habitat for beneficial insects that overwinter, either by hibernating or laying eggs that will hatch in spring. These insects include butterflies, wasps, bees, moths, ladybugs and fireflies that overwinter in a leaf litter and tall hollow plant stalks including monarda and echinacea.

Cleaning out your garden in the fall means throwing out a valuable army of beneficial insects that will feed on aphids, thrips, spider mites and other common pests that will inhabit your garden when warm weather arrives.

The general rule of thumb is to hold off on trimming back perennials and removing dead leaves until there have been seven consecutive days with daytime temperatures above 50 degrees. The Xerces Society, an organization devoted to conserving invertebrates, advises a more cautious approach for northern states, urging us to wait until mid-April before cutting back and cleaning up. If you’ve paid your taxes, you’re probably good to go.

When you do cut, bundle stalks loosely and put them in an out-of-the-way spot so that any remaining eggs and chrysalises can hatch. Be gentle with leaf litter too. Leave some in place as long as it’s not smothering emerging perennial shoots. It’s excellent for the soil and acts as mulch to deter the weeds that are also coming to life again.

Speaking of weeds ... now is the perfect time to start weeding, but don’t trample the soil while you do it. The soil is moist and light, and the plants and roots pull out easily.

Cleaning up heucheras, gingers, hellebores and other semi-evergreen perennials is another job for early spring. Heuchera is a shallow-rooted plant that tends to heave from the ground due to winter cycles of freezing and thawing. If you have heaved plants, gently dig them out and replant them more deeply so that they’re level with the ground.

While you’re at it, trim away the dead and tattered leaves to make room for healthy new growth. If you don’t cut back dead epimedium foliage now, you risk missing the delicate new leaves and flowers that emerge under the tangle of last year’s leaves.

It’s also time to prune shrubs that bloom on new growth. Some shrubs don’t need much pruning except to get rid of dead branches or branches that are interfering with each other. You might want to trim back leggy hydrangeas and viburnums to shape them and encourage fuller growth. Cut back buddleia (butterfly bush) to 8 or so inches above the ground. Don’t worry; by mid-summer it will be flourishing.

Don’t prune shrubs that bloom on old growth such as lilacs and oakleaf hydrangeas or you will lose this year’s flowers. Wait until they have finished flowering before making cuts.

This time of year, every day brings new surprises. In all our busy bustling in the garden, it’s easy to forget why we’re doing what we’re doing. We need to put down our tools and take a deep breath and a good look around. And congratulate ourselves on making it through another winter.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.

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