In a Chaotic Season, Where to Begin Your Spring Cleanup?


Despite my decades of gardening practice, I feel frantic every April — and never more so than in the chaotic spring of 2020, when the normally simple parts of the equation, like acquiring supplies or hiring a helper, present their own challenges on top of the anticipated eruption of perennial weeds like garlic mustard.

But I’m sticking to what I say each year at this time: We are not powerless over April, although in most places, it’s a contender for the busiest month of the garden year.

First, a note on timing that lets anyone worried about being late off the hook, and even offers a pat on the back for procrastinating: To support beneficial insects, it’s best not to start your spring cleanup until after you’ve had a steady stream of 50-degree days.

If that hasn’t happened where you are, you may be wondering, as I am, “Is it spring yet?” For a perspective based on data, not anecdotes, the USA National Phenology Network’s maps are worth a visit. (The organization calls the process of tracking spring’s progress Springcasting.)

Douglas W. Tallamy, a professor in the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware and the author of “Nature’s Best Hope” and “Bringing Nature Home,” recently reminded me of the importance of waiting until the weather settles. A warm stretch triggers some overwintering insects, notably bees and certain butterflies and moths, plus spiders (which are not insects, but major consumers of unwanted insect pests), to get moving. Once they do, often after resting all winter in leaf litter or under tree bark, they are no longer as vulnerable to spring-cleaning actions that might kill them or move them away from their host plants.

Shall we proceed, then, one chore at a time, as the weather allows? Every year, I follow this set of eight steps that any gardener can do — no experience required.

Tidying beds along the most-traveled front walkway always reminds me that I can do this, a little at a time. Walking past a mess every time I go out: not so inspiring.

Again, first things first: In the edible garden, why prep the tomato, eggplant or pepper rows — transplants that won’t be set out until all danger of frost is past — if you haven’t planted lettuce or other cold-hardy things yet? Spot-clean targeted areas for the earliest crops, then double back.

Similarly, begin by gently removing matted leaves to uncover spring ornamentals, like flower bulbs and other early bloomers, even if you can’t stop to clean the whole bed. The performance of tulips or trillium is far more enjoyable when they are not still up to their necks in debris.

If you scored seeds early, before they became as elusive as toilet paper, dry beans and pasta, make a calendar of what to sow when, indoors or out, and organize the packets week-by-week, in an accordion file or recipe-card box. (Don’t know when to sow what? My calculator tool for vegetables, herbs and annual flowers will help.)

I want to have just enough of each edible over a long harvest, not a momentary glut then nothing more. Move any packet that’s best sown a little at a time ahead two weeks in the filing system after you use it, to plan for a staggered supply of salad greens, carrots, beets, radishes and even cilantro (which bolts fast, so you need succession sowings or you’ll have flowers and then coriander seeds instead of tasty leaves). When it’s time to sow bush beans, I likewise do so two or three times, a couple of weeks apart.

Because you’ll be generating it fast. Extract (and preferably screen) finished material from the bottom to top-dress beds as you clean them.

No compost heap? Dedicate a spot that’s out of the way but neither dank and too shady nor in the baking sun. Segregating raked-up leaves in a separate pile can yield homemade fodder for the next task: mulching.

Skip all those plastic bags, if possible, and ideally choose a locally produced material. (The most local of all are your raked-up and aged leaves, which are great on vegetable beds and more once they get crumbly.)

In some areas this spring, mulch deliveries are allowed; elsewhere, they aren’t. But even in states where garden centers are closed to foot traffic, no-contact curbside pickup of prepaid orders including bagged products may be happening. Check your garden center’s website and call to find out about availability.

Also, maybe add more birdhouses — a great project for homebound handy types, and a good way to upcycle scrap wood. I usually clean mine in March, but better late than not at all, assuming nobody has claimed them yet.

The Sialis website (Sialia sialis is the Latin name of the Eastern bluebird) offers guidance on how to be a good bluebird landlord, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch site has detailed birdhouse plans that suit the needs of every species of cavity-nester.

Don’t forget: Never walk, or work, in mucky soil. I stay off soft beds and lawns, too, delaying some chores. Those tasks can be done in another week, but you can’t easily fix soil turned to concrete.

I like big bowls of pansies or violas to cheer me on in April and May as I prep my Northeastern garden, because the list of chores can feel daunting, especially in years when winter keeps performing mini-encores — or, as this year, when help is not accessible. The local garden center is my first call to inquire if, and how, I can get plants, and which ones they will put out by the curb for me to reward myself.


This article was adapted from the April installment of the monthly garden chores column on awaytogarden.com.

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