The lone voice of horticultural reason

Searching For Survivors

4-15-2002 — I spent some time poking about the garden today, against my better instincts. Like you, I couldn’t help it. It hit 75 degrees in the Twin Cities, as gorgeous a day as one should ever need.

Poking about was easy, since beginning last year I threw in my hat with the Gardening Darwinists, meaning I no longer cover any of my beds with winter mulch. After fifteen years I’ve come to the conclusion that winter mulch – straw, marsh hay, bags of leaves, old sheets, tarps, carpet padding (all of which I’ve used) – is more bother than they’re worth. If a plant makes it through winter, it belongs here, and if it doesn’t, see ya later. I’m through enabling my plants.

I didn’t even cut most of my garden down last fall, and today made an interesting discovery. Namely, it isn’t all that yucky to clean the bed in April. As few as two years ago, I was teaching a class on winter prep, and distinctly remember instructing all in attendance to be sure they cut down all their perennials (with the exceptions of tall grasses, and anything that vines or climbs) in late October.

Otherwise, I told them, the garden is a gooey mess in the spring, harboring all manner of fungi from the previous season.

Well, that last part is true, but what I found today was how simple it is to clean my beds in the spring. Everything I pulled at by way of last year’s foliage pretty much came without resistance. Heuchera, aconitum, lilies, alchemilla, the brown waves of Siberian iris leaves, all were quickly and easily extricated. Hosta leaves from last year came clean just by raking.

Sure, I had to get the bypass pruners out to handle the browned mum stalks, phlox stems, and boltonia remnants, but that’s true no matter what time of year you cut the beds down. The great joy was that I didn’t spend any time last fall/early winter freezing my fingers while laying out bail after bail of fluffed marsh hay. And no marsh hay this spring to clean up, though I will miss it on the compost pile.

As far as over-wintering disease, I don’t see a problem. With last year’s foliage gone, my beds are as clean as a church restroom. Whether you cleaned out your beds last fall or will do it this spring, the important message is to wait until June 15th to apply a summer mulch. We need to let the sun get high and hot enough to sterilize the soil. After the 15th you can put down your compost, shredded leaves, or cocoa bean husks, but not before. Let the soil bake a bit.

Best news is I don’t see anything that didn’t make it, with the exception of some rotted-out rodgersia crowns. That’s just as well, for I’ve had it with rodgersia. That’s what I get for being suckered in by catalog descriptions. The stuff has never done anything but burn, even in a mere three hours of sunlight, even with ample water. I’ve never coaxed it into flower. Three years is long enough to be disappointed.

I’ll never tire of seeing lilies poking through the soil in spring. Some are up an inch already, giant, asparagus-like tips that seem to rise noticeably day to day. I have aconitum that’s already two inches high. This heat keeps up and we will surely see another early, quick start to the 2002 gardening season.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener