Spring Cleaning

By Michael King

Timing is everything and for those of us busy with naturalistic borders, the time to tidy them up is now. Well chosen perennials may well have decorated our gardens all winter, but even if not already bashed by the winter weather they now need tidying away.

Winter silhouettes in a naturalistic garden
Winter silhouettes in a naturalistic garden

Someone once asked me if they really needed to cut their ornamental grasses down in spring as in nature that never happens. Well, yes, you could leave them, but our gardens really deserve a clean start in spring. Personally, I enjoy the sudden change as a result of cutting everything down; the garden opens up, seems larger, appearing like a bare canvas awaiting the first strokes of paint.

From the beginning of February I start looking for the right moment to make a start. The trick is to let attractive plants stand for as long as possible, but to clear everything away just before the noses of spring flowering bulbs start appearing above ground level.

This past winter has been a challenge, as in western Europe and in my case the Netherlands, the weather has been unusually mild and wet. The foliage of many perennials was still green in January, but it was obvious that bulbs were rushing into growth. We decided to start cutting everything back in early February, just in time as it turned out as within days the tulips started pushing through. Now, three weeks later, they are growing fast and like much else in the garden we are anticipating everything flowering weeks earlier than normal; perhaps this will become the new normal.

Tulips emerging amidst mixed perennial border plants
Tulips emerging amidst mixed perennial border plants

The ideal moment to cut ornamental grasses and other perennials down is when they are dry. Many perennials can then easily be snapped into short pieces and allowed to fall onto the ground around the plants. This creates a natural mulch that gently feeds the plants and avoids the need to carry everything away to the compost heap. The result of this technique is perhaps a little untidy for a week or two, but all too quickly the plants will spring up to cover the ground.

Natural mulch surrounding newly emerging perennials
Natural mulch surrounding newly emerging perennials

If you have yet to make a start with your own spring cleaning, pick your moment soon. The longer you leave it the more difficult it will be. Spring will be with us soon and once more we can enjoy the step by step progress of our dynamic naturalistic planting schemes.

Michael King

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