The forecast for today is a high of 73, with sunshine and balmy breezes. Yesterday reached the 70s too. After weeks of cold and wind, the desire to be outside is overwhelming. So what can we do in the garden now?
In spite of the weather, it’s much too early to plant. The soil is cold; seeds will sit and sulk. Besides, we know that temperatures are sure to dip well below freezing in the coming weeks and months.
But even this early in the season, some plants are putting on new growth. There’s green at the base of my catmint. My ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum has new leaves. Bearded irises are poking through the mulch. So are daffodil leaves, and—at least in our sunny backyard—crocuses are blooming! I can’t tell you how happy I am to see those purple and yellow flowers!
Amid all this new growth, my dead-looking perennials stick out like eyesores. The catmint has flattened under the winter snows, and its disintegrating gray leaves look awful. Hardy geraniums look no better. Dead daylily leaves sprawl across the ground, or break off in the wind and impale themselves on the neighboring gooseberry thorns.
Taking our cues from the plants, it’s time to remove last year’s dead foliage. The perennials will grow and bloom anyway, but they won’t look very good swathed in dried leaves and pokey stems.
I have several options when it comes to attacking the dead growth. First, I can pull out the rake. This works well where groundcovers extend onto a hard surface such as a patio or sidewalk, or there is no mulch to disturb. Simply rake out the dead top growth, being careful not to damage the crowns of the plants. You can add the leaves to the compost pile as long as they aren’t diseased.
Since I have copious amounts of mulch everywhere, I prefer to use my hands. This is the one time I use gloves—some of those stems can scratch! For plants with thin, brittle stems and leaves, simply attack them with your hands, scrunching and crunching until they’ve been reduced to small pieces. Then, either leave the debris as mulch or gather it up to compost.
Some plants, such as penstemons and salvias, have sturdier growth. Trying to break off the stems will damage the plant—I’ve even accidently pulled them out by the roots. In this case, I grab my pruning clippers. Gathering a clump after clump of dead stems, I cut them off near the base, just above the new growth.
Even bigger perennials need pruning. Blue Mist Spirea and Russian Sage leaf out on the lower parts of existing stems, but the ends are usually dead. That means I have to cut them back to where the new growth begins. Again, clippers work best. You can cut these plants all the way down, leaving the roots to resprout, but things grow so slowly here, I hate to start over every spring.
Irises and daylilies are easy—simply give the dead leaves a gentle tug and they’ll come off in your hand. If they resist, simply trim them off with your clippers. The hard part is corralling the pulled leaves into the garden cart before they blow away.
There are a few otherwise attractive plants that I’ve given up on, just because they are so hard to freshen up each spring. ‘Spanish Gold’ broom is one. I love the yellow flowers and fine green leaves. I love the compact, well-behaved growth, and the plant’s resilience during drought. But I absolutely loathed the hours I spent finding each twig and clipping off the dead tip. The years I decided to forego this task, the plant looked ratty all summer. It’s just not worth it.
It’s also time to cut back the dried ornamental grasses that have given us color and form all winter. I hate to do it—my little bluestem leaves are still a lovely coppery russet. But new growth is coming up, and I don’t want to have to worry about lopping off the new leaves along with the old. (Hopefully the early bulbs will distract the eye from the shorn clumps.)
Perennials such as these are largely care-free; this is one of the few times of the year that they demand our attention. With the weather this nice, it hardly seems like work!