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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham

Between the rainstorms, occasional light snow and windy periods of April, gardeners can usually find a few good hours for cleaning up the garden. Our yards and gardens aren’t all the same, but a lot of the work is remarkably similar for most of us, year after year.

Picking up debris

Many villagers and city folks with small front yards in East Aurora, Buffalo and Snyder already have raked their yards and picked up fallen branches. They are the same disciplined people who rake their autumn leaves as fast as they fall. (Don’t they know there will be more windstorms and more things falling from the skies? I operate on the theory that if I wait, the result looks really impressive, and it’s all done at once!)

In larger yards the spring pickup can be a very big job. I remember being young, with spring fever, exuberant as I heaped the wheelbarrow and made trip after trip to the compost pile or brush pile (for big limbs). Now I understand why older homeowners procrastinate, take it in smaller steps, or hire a landscape crew to sweep through and do the bulk of the work. The job is challenging for aging or imperfect backs, knees, hips or hands.

The right tools make a huge difference: a garden cart with big wheels that dumps easily, a large scoop shovel, a tarp with handles, perhaps an ergonomic rake. It also helps to remember to stop, stretch and sit periodically.

No matter who does the work, the cleaned-up appearance is satisfying. It feels even better if you put your yard waste to work, making compost for the future. Do start composting, even at the most elementary level: Just pile the twigs, leaves, gutter debris, dead annuals and perennial clippings in a hidden corner of the yard. You don’t have to make an enclosed compost bin (although chicken wire or pallets or purchased composters make it easy); just don’t waste your yard waste.

Cutting back plants

New gardeners or homeowners regularly ask me when to cut back perennials or shrubs. There is no one time to cut back everything, and the tendency to make a clean sweep – electric shears buzzing across every standing stalk or twig – can lead to some mistakes. Let’s separate our treatment into three groups: herbaceous (not woody) perennials; sub-shrubs (woody plants like butterfly bushes that usually die back to the ground in cold climates); and woody shrubs and trees.

Perennials: If you still have dead stalks standing, you can cut them all back now. However, be sure you can see the plant’s “crown” – where new growth is beginning. If you don’t see a hint of new shoots, then leave some twigs or old leaves showing so you know where the plant is.

Some perennials (butterfly weeds – Asclepias spp., many hostas) show up much later. Most gardeners remember stepping on, or planting on top of, some unsuspecting perennial that comes late to the party. You can also mark those plants with sticks, chopsticks or plant markers.

If you wonder why we might have left stalks standing, it’s not about being lazy or too busy in October and November. It might be that the plants were still flowering (Japanese anemones, asters, monk’s hood) during an extended autumn, or we prefer to leave the seed heads for the birds, or we’re choosing to mark the plants’ locations that way.

In a large garden, cutting back perennials is a big job in spring or fall. I used to stoop and kneel, using hand pruners for small plants and hedge clippers for large ones, to cut them back a couple of inches above the crown.

As a back-preserving method, I have now learned that a large leaf rake does a fine job while I remain standing. Tall perennials such as Filipendula, Chelone or Veronicastrum have long, dead stalks – some still standing, many blown over. Rake the fallen ones and use the rake to roughly whack down the standing ones. I did this earlier this week and found that a once-over raking (careful to avoid plant crowns) cleaned up most of a large perennial bed quite efficiently.

Squatting or stooping is necessary for cutting back ornamental grasses and some of the mushy, strappy leaves of day lilies. In those cases, grab a handful of the stalks or leaves, and cut across them with the hand pruner. For large ornamental grasses, I have known some gardeners to tie the dead grass together with twine, and then use an electric pruning tool or chain saw to cut across them a few inches above the ground or above the new, green shoots. Caution: Don’t cut your hands on the sharp grass edges.

Woody perennials: Sometimes called sub-shrubs, these plants appear to have entirely dead stalks above ground: Caryopteris (Bluebeard), Buddleia (Butterfly bush) and Lespedeza (Pea shrub). They actually may have life in those stalks, depending on the severity of the winter, so you can wait until May and prune them selectively. Or cut them all back a few inches above the ground and watch for them to re-grow. Usually I cut back the Lespedeza entirely, but nip at the butterfly bush and Caropyteris much later because I’d like them larger. Cut back hardy hibiscus stalks any time.

‘Endless Summer’ and similar repeat-blooming hydrangeas are another matter. For now just leave the dead-looking sticks standing and prepare to be surprised by flowers in June.

Pruning woody plants: Garden cleanup motivates people to cut back shrubs or trees whether or not it’s the right time for the plant. If plants have broken dormancy (when you see swollen buds and leaves begin to show), you are past the ideal period of pruning most woody plants. Do prune diseased, rubbing or crossing branches any time, or branches that are way out of proportion or in your way. Just don’t get too zealous, whacking them back. Generally, don’t prune spring-flowering plants at this time.

It’s cleanup time for sure this month, when you can. Just be careful of the plant crowns, don’t trample your soil, and – if you’re just coming out of winter dormancy – take it easy on your own body. There’s a long and terrific gardening season ahead.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.