Mid-March is one of the best times to get out into the garden and do some spring cleaning. Much more fun than spring cleaning inside the house but every bit as important to the health and vitality of the summer gardens.
Since it is most likely the first time to do any real work in the yard, I will start with a brisk walk around the paths to get warmed up. This gives me a chance to see what really needs to be done and prioritize my day. Once I am warmed up a bit, I will do some leg and arm stretches. Nothing too vigorous, just a little warm-up for muscles I haven’t used since last October. Oh, yes, I like to think walking and doing weight training will keep me in shape, but gardening takes muscles we forget we have over the winter. And the last thing I want to do is be sore the next morning.
My first task is to pick up all the twigs and branches that have blown down over the winter. Off they go to the brush pile. Luckily, the brush pile has been composted a bit since last summer as it was piled pretty high. But the rains and natural decay have reduced the pile to half its size in October. So it is ready to be piled on again. I do try to break the twigs and cut the branches into smaller pieces so they will break down faster in the pile. I will also rake up some leaves and put them on as well. I don’t rake too much, as a layer of leaves will serve as a warming mulch until the ground warms up, usually in May. But I can certainly take up all the leaves on the paths and compost them on the brush pile.
Which brings me to talk a little bit about the difference between a compost pile and a brush pile. My compost is in a bin that I add my larger vegetable and fruit scraps to, as well as some grass clippings and a few brown leaves. Smaller pieces of veggies and fruit go into the worm bin for the worms to break down into “worm tea” that I use to fertilize my orchids and other plants. My brush pile is for larger things like large twigs, small branches, fern leaves that I will cut off this month, and some browned leaves. I do not use the decayed materials from the brush pile as mulch or fertilizer as I also add most of my weed leaves to this pile. Not all the weeds, as I bag ones that have flowered and gone to seed for the trash. I don’t want weed seeds in the brush pile or the compost bin. (As you can see, composting is a real art that is best left for another column!)
After I have cleaned the paths of leaves and sticks, I move into the flower beds to collect the sticks that have fallen there. Alders are notorious for having weak branches that fall in the wind, so there is usually a lot to do in the beds surrounding the alders. But I love my alders as they are so stately and old that they define the gardens as much as the rhodies and hostas.
While I am in the flower beds, I will also pull any tiny ivy sprouts or bay laurel shoots I see. Pulling them now makes for less work in a week or two when they have had time to more firmly take root. These won’t go into the brush pile nor the compost because of the easiness of them re-growing to create a real problem later. So they get bagged for the trash.
Also in the flower beds are sprouts of hosta (already!) and other perennials. I will pull the leaves away from them, as well as pull the weeds that have started to grow near them. I have to be very cautious as I have been known to pull seedlings that I thought were weeds only to remember they were a desirable plant that self-seeds and now I have pulled them out. So now I