Late-Winter Garden Cleanup in Six Steps

Late-Winter Garden Cleanup in Six Steps Featured Image
Cleaning your garden tools is one more way you can prepare for the garden season.

A bit of garden housekeeping in February and March can literally help clear the way for the floral exuberance of April and May. With that in mind, here are some spring cleaning projects for late winter, on days when the Polar Vortex isn’t visiting.

1. Get rid of the deadwood.

Removing dead/unhealthy branch
Remove dead or unhealthy branches.

Winter offers a lot in the way of stark clarity – including a clear view of dead twigs and branches. Now’s the perfect time to pull on some warm clothes and work gloves and have a go at any twigs and branches that have passed their expiration date. Pay special attention to bigleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla), spiraeas, mock oranges (Philadelphus spp.), and other prolifically sprouting shrubs that tend to develop a central snarl of congested stems. Entirely dead growth can often be yanked out by hand, but you may also need pruners or a pruning saw.

2. Tend to the injured.

Broken and wayward limbs (such as “crossing” branches) are also relatively easy to spot (and prune) during the dormant season. You might want to save this job for late winter or early spring, to minimize the risk of cold damage to pruning wounds.

3. Wage war on spores.

Winter's perennial stems
Cut back winter’s perennial stems, especially those of flowers plagued by summer diseases.

Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), bee balm (Monarda spp.), mallows (Malva spp.) and quite a few other ornamental plants are plagued by leaf-disfiguring diseases and pests that winter over on plant debris. If you haven’t already removed said debris to some place far away from potential host plants, now’s the time to do so. Late winter is also an excellent time to stage a horticultural-oil attack on numerous pests, including hemlock adelgids and soft scales. (Click here to read an article about using horticultural oils to manage pests.)

4. Go on a vole patrol.

Clear away any cover able to become vole refuge.

Matted leaves, winter mulch, and the like provide ideal cover for voles as they nose their destructive way through your garden, devouring the roots of perennials and shrubs and girdling the bark of trees. Check your garden regularly for their furrowed surface runways – and be prepared to take action if you discover damage. Siberian irises, daylilies, ornamental grasses, and other perennials that produce ground-smothering mats of spent leaves are especially vulnerable to infestation (and destruction) by voles. The best way to control voles in the perennial garden is to trim mat-prone foliage (preferably before winter). Which brings us to….

5. Cut the grass.

Ornamental grass
Neatly cut back all ornamental grasses before they begin growing again.

Ornamental grasses are one of the glories of fall and early winter, their gossamer seed heads and papery leaves shimmering and ruffling in the November and December breeze. Most of them are considerably less glorious by February, however. A mild, dry late-winter day might be a good time to break out the hedge clippers and shear back your vortex-shredded Miscanthus (or Pennisetum or Panicum).

6. Make way for the new.

Cut back the old leaves of hellebores after they bloom in earliest spring.

Shear the tattered foliage of hellebores, Christmas ferns, epimediums, and other semi-evergreen perennials in late winter to clear space for their newly emerging growth. The tail end of winter is also the ideal time cut back the stems (to 4 inches or so) of semi-woody sub-shrubs, including Russian sage (Perovskia), butterfly bush (Buddleia × davidii), and blue mist (Caryopteris × clandonensis). They’ll respond by pushing vigorous new shoots and clouds of summer flowers. Apply an inch of Fafard® Garden Manure Blend in spring to give their fresh growth an extra boost.

About Russell Stafford

Hortiholic and plant evangelist, Russell Stafford, transplanted his first perennial at age 7 and thereby began a lifelong plant addiction. He is the founder and custodian of Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an online nursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. Russell also works as a horticultural consultant, freelance writer (Horticulture and The American Gardener magazines), and garden editor. He formerly served as Curator and Head of Horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan and as the Horticultural Program Coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation, then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University.

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