Spring Cleanup

For the Beginner

| April/May 2003

In most parts of the country, the vagaries of April weather are enough to drive us crazy. Beautiful spring-like days make us shed some clothes, only to put them back on when the next cold breeze moves in. Spring is coming, but that arrival can seem tantalizingly slow for herb gardeners eager to get outside and get their hands dirty. Too early to plant where you are? Don’t worry; there are plenty of other gardening jobs to keep you busy, chores that feed our anticipation of the arrival of the real spring.

The majority of vegetable gardeners, who grow most plants as annuals, do garden cleanup in the fall, pulling out the spent plants, cutting back unruly growth and putting the garden to bed for the winter in a tidy, buttoned-up fashion. I’m not one of those. For me, that’s an early-spring job.

Because I prefer to mix my vegetables and annuals with perennial herbs and shrubs, when autumn comes I leave the sprawling plants (after deadheading overly rambunctious plants so they don’t reseed where I don’t want them), the debris, leaves, annuals that have produced their flowers and died and mulch—I leave all that where it is so it will give the garden some protection from the cycle of freezing, thawing and heaving that characterizes winter in cold climates. Winter makes a frozen tableau of the sprawling late-summer garden.

Herbs are enticing at every stage of their lives.

Spring garden cleanup and getting ready for the gardening season are joyful tasks, and the garden is a place of discovery. On a mild day, put your pruning tool in your pocket and position a wheelbarrow in a handy place to catch the debris you’re clearing out. Then get down on your knees and get busy, gathering leaves, weeds and old mulch, cutting back withered perennial stems so the newly emerging green of spring has a clear path and pulling out any new seedlings that sprouted in spots where they’re not welcome. Clearing out and tidying up lets you see the space, remember the look of last summer’s garden and think about changes you want to make. You’ll get to enjoy the sights and scents of the perennial herbs that emerge early, such as chives and chervil.

The next step is to raid the compost pile, or haul out the store-bought bags of compost or aged manure. You’ll spread this wealth throughout the garden, topdressing the soil to condition it and give it a nutrient boost your emerging herbs will appreciate. After spreading the compost, take a hoe and work the surface, breaking up the crusty soil and getting the compost or manure into the top few inches, taking care not to disturb the herbs and bulbs that are planted below. The earthworms will do the rest.

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