A New Way to Think About Spring Garden Clean Up

This time of year, we get excited about heading outside for some spring garden clean up. The warmer weather signals that spring in just around the corner. All of last year’s plants, including grasses, perennials and the mountains of leaves blown into the garden, have to be cut down and hauled away, or do they? There is so much to do, but before you clear cut the garden, look closely at what you are removing from your landscape.

Through winter, your garden has provided habitat for many different beneficial insects and wildlife. By removing everything above ground, you are removing nesting sites and the homes of the pollinators you have attracted to your yard. All the old stalks, stems and leaves have protected and sheltered these insects through the coldest weather. So how can you save them and still get your garden ready for spring? Here are some suggestions that will save most of the beneficial insects hibernating in your garden.

Coneflowers and Little Bluestem offer great winter cover for pollinators and beneficial insects.

Carefully remove old growth

Most native bees are solitary creatures that overwinter in the ground or in hollow stems of perennial and grasses. Because they make their winter homes in some of the stems of your plants, cutting these plants to the ground will remove their nesting habitat.

An alternative would be to cut them down to 18 inches now, remove the upper portion and spread it loosely along the edges of your garden or property. Then you can go back when temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees and completely remove the rest down to the new growth at the base. By that time the bees and beneficial insects will have emerged from their winter slumber.

Another option would be to remove the stalks completely just like you have done in past years. I would then bundle the stems together loosely and hang them along the fence or tree line. From there, the insects can emerge and fly to your garden area.

I didn’t realize how many of these stems and stalks harbored the beneficial insects I want in my garden. It is important that we allow the life cycle of these insects to reach completion. I want to encourage you to be patient and careful when you cut down and remove the old growth from your garden. Either keep those plants up longer into the spring or keep them somewhere in your garden so the pollinators and beneficial insects can come out and stay in your neighborhood.

Strategically clean up leaves

We all have piles of leaves that have accumulated over the winter in our gardens. Just like the hollow stems of perennials, leaves protect beneficial insects, including ladybugs, damsel bugs, and butterflies like commas, morning cloaks and question marks through the winter. Other pollinators overwinter as eggs or pupae in leaves. Holding off leaf removal until daytime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees will favor the hatching of a new brood of beneficial insects to begin their lives in your garden.

Solomon’s Seal surrounded by leaf litter that protects pollinators and insulates the plants for winter.

This simple and thoughtful approach to spring clean up will have a positive impact on the overall health of your garden. Instead of clearing your garden of beneficial insects, you will be connecting your garden with the complete life cycle of these pollinators. Your garden can have a positive impact on the plight of these endangered species. It will be a landscape that supports the pollinators and beneficial insects we enjoy and need so much.

Waking Up: The Exciting Life of Buds

The landscape may still be dominated by the browns and tans of winter, but inside the greenhouse is a different story -oodles of green buds bursting out of dormancy, waking up to warm, humid air! It’s refreshing to spend time around these green little beauties, and it is an indicator that plants outside will soon be doing the very same thing.

Buds excite us for many reasons. They portend flowers and color, and the lush greenness to come. But they also are a signal of life! Life after the cold winter months, life after dormancy – a breaking forth from a long sleep, part of the natural cycles of activity and inactivity that we all experience.

Beyond metaphor, their botany is just plain cool! Here are a few things to know about the buds emerging on your landscape plants at home.

Salix Mt. Asama is an early bloomer. It’s bright yellow and pink pollen clusters are showy, suspended on fuzzy, whimsical silks.

What is a Bud?

A pal? A friend? I certainly see them that way! But scientifically speaking, a bud is an embryonic shoot just above where the leaf will form, or at the tip of a stem. As I previously covered in my November post on pruning, there are lots of different types of buds: terminal buds (at top of stem), lateral buds (on sides of stem, producing leaves or flowers), dormant buds (asleep and waiting for spring), and many more.

Buds can be classified by looks or location.
By Mariana Ruiz Villarreal LadyofHats [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

‘Confetti Cake’ hellebore has a pure white flowerbud, but when it opens will be spotted with dark purple.

Bud Beasties

Inspecting your buds is important to stopping a potential problem. The first thing to inspect for is aphids. Buds are succulent little treats for these pests, and have less waxy protective coating than mature leaves, making them an easy target. Often the buds won’t show much damage until you have a nasty infestation, so inspecting buds early is key. Be sure to look on the inner folds of the bud if possible, as aphids are quite good at hiding themselves.

Ogon spirea blooms earlier than other spirea, long before it has fully leafed out. The flowers are white with yellow centers and closely clustered together, making a nice effect in the spring landscape.

Health Check

Even if you see buds on your trees, shrubs and outdoor plants, that may not be an indication that everything is A-OK. All too often I see lots of buds on my potted shrubs only to find out that they are dead – by pressing gently on them, they easily break off and reveal dead wood at the wound. If you have any doubt about the hardiness of a shrub or perhaps neglected your winter watering schedule, take a close look at the buds. Buds that are soft and mushy or dry and brittle are a bad sign, and may indicate dead wood that needs trimming back this year. Firm buds that don’t break off at a light touch, be they green or still brown, usually mean they are alive and waiting to spring open.

I’m dismayed that FloraKansas Plant Festival is still months away – so many early blooming plants are at their best right now, budding out and coming alive! Come visit the Arboretum and enjoy all the buds (and bulbs!) that are waking up!