Mud Season: Clean Up Quandaries

– Posted in: Garden chores, Mailbag, Mud Season
17 comments

Mud season is capricious; spring-like one week, back to winter the next.


A fellow gardener emailed me earlier this week:

Oh cold climate wise one, Have you seen the forecast for Friday?! Snow and lows in the high teens. What does this mean for all the little perennials I’ve pulled leaf mulch off of? Should it go back on? I’m really looking forward to actual gardening this weekend, but Friday is a bummer!

As I mentioned last year, if you live in a cold climate, you really don’t want to uncover every plant on the first mild day, because, as you’ve discovered, there are sure to be more wintry days before spring is truly here. (Ahem. Do you remember that hard freeze we had in late May last year?)

Clean Up the Pretty Views

The fact is, most plants can grow through whatever mulch or dead plant growth that happens to be laying around. There are two primary reasons for spring clean-up: aesthetics and rodent control. Using this criteria, the first places I clean up are the locations where I know the earliest spring bulbs are coming up. The window of opportunity (WOO) for this is pretty narrow, because before you know it, they are too far along to pull a rake over them. For the same reason, I tidy up the areas I can see from inside the house, so even on cold, blustery days the view outside looks good.

Clean Up the Rodent Hideouts

hole made by vole in garden bed

Here's one example of the vole mischief I find all over my garden in spring.


I do have an extensive vole population in my garden, so I try to keep my eye out for vole holes and tunnels, and uncover them, removing the plant debris. My hope is that without the benefit of cover, the voles will be easier prey for their predators. I have to admit I don’t know if there are enough predators around here to make a difference, but I do what I can to make it easier for them.

Search Out and Destroy the Weeds

Of course, the same mulch that protects your garden plants also shelters the weeds. In early spring, I sometimes remove the mulch (or last year’s garden remains), pull the weeds, and put the mulch back. That’s assuming that the soil has thawed enough to remove them, as it already has this year. I avoid stepping on the soil as it is still quite sodden and stepping on it will compact it.

Try Not to Fret

Most established plants in your garden should be fine, covered or not, unless you have a severe case of zone denial, or we get some really out-of-season weather, like that freeze last May. If you have anything that you planted just last fall, or that you especially prize–I’d leave that covered for at least another month, perhaps to the first week of May. For me, that’s four to five weeks before the last frost. Ideally, you’d take it off in stages, but it’s really a judgment call, balancing the time you have, the expected weather in the near future, how far along the plant is and your gardener’s instinct.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

What differentiates a bulb from a perennial plant is that the nourishment for the flower is stored within the bulb itself.…There is something miraculous about the way that a little grenade of dried up tissue can explode into a complete flower.

~Monty Don in The Complete Gardener pp. 142

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Dee @ Red Dirt Ramblings March 28, 2010, 8:35 pm

Kathy, I love the advice about “Do Not Fret.” I often fret because spring is capricious here too. Lots of fits and starts. I’ll take our present spring of cooler temps this year over last because everything isn’t so far along. That late freeze last year did in several of my roses and a Japanese maple. I don’t think we’ll have that this year.

Wise advice from a wise girl. You are.~~Dee

Cheryl March 27, 2010, 4:52 pm

I LOVE the white on white photo, it really is striking!
.-= Cheryl´s last blog ..Spice Cured Chicken =-.

Providence Acres Farm - Sheryl March 26, 2010, 5:51 pm

I don’t mulch either but my gardens are usually full of oak leaves all winter. I rake them off in the spring. I was wondering when I should remove the cover on my blaze roses. I lay them down and cover them up for the winter. I tie the canes to the fence again in the spring. I decided, today, to wait until April.

I did take the little wooden A-frame off the cedar bush and put it away. I suppose if it threatens to snow heavily, I can put if back. 🙁
.-= Providence Acres Farm – Sheryl´s last blog ..Coffee Planter Gift =-.

Lynn March 26, 2010, 11:03 am

Well, at least it’s not only me who’s happy to have cooler heads (um, cold climate heads) advise. Kathy, I’m amazed you don’t mulch! I’ve noticed that many of the prized gardens on campus and at Plantations aren’t covered, either. Solves that problem! I’ve recovered my fall plantings–the forecast has it at 10F tonight. We have voles (or something), too, but the Beagle’s taken over as chief predator. A little gross, but maybe word will spread underground. Thank you!
.-= Lynn´s last blog ..I feel the earth move =-.

Kathy Purdy March 26, 2010, 11:43 am

It is more accurate to say I don’t mulch for winter protection. I like to mulch in the summer to keep down weeds and preserve soil moisture, but I don’t always get to it.

commonweeder March 26, 2010, 9:55 am

I probably can’t claim wisdom, but there are advantages of being a procrastinator – which I am. I cannot count the times i have been glad I didn’t clean up – or rip out a ‘dead’ plant.
.-= commonweeder´s last blog ..Real and Imaginary =-.

Carolflowerhill March 26, 2010, 6:43 am

Great thoughts Kathy! I have those little vole varmints too and find lose iris leaves from where they have been dining all winter. I welcome fox and ferrets to dine on them! I am cautious about removing nature’s mulch for here in Western Massachusetts we could still get cold temps… in fact tonight promises snow and temperatures in the teens!
.-= Carolflowerhill´s last blog ..A Connection to Trees in a New England ‘Landscape Garden’ =-.

Christine B. March 26, 2010, 2:31 am

I admit I am at times (mostly in spring) a foolish gardener and rush the cleanup a bit. I don’t blame myself though…winter is so long here that the itch to garden becomes a rash! We still have several feet of snow to go before I can even think of things like removing mulch, debris, etc. For me it’s about clearing the crown of the plant so the sun can get to it (important for ornamental grasses, which I have a collection of) and a bit of old fashioned type A tidiness. Unless we get a warm spell soon, no cleaning for me for a couple weeks bare minimum (insert sigh).

Christine in Alaska

Tatyana March 25, 2010, 10:30 pm

Very useful post, Kathy, and oh, what a beautiful picture! Our winter was so mild, I did a spring cleaning in February since the “dry” leaves were wet. March came, and it is colder than February. Of course, I can’t compare our cold with your cold and I’m sure all the plants will survive.
.-= Tatyana´s last blog ..Awakening =-.

Jean March 25, 2010, 9:02 pm

Kathy, This is such helpful advice. My instinct has been not to rush out and do garden clean-up during the warm weather we’ve had recently; after all, it’s still March! And, sure enough, it’s supposed to go down into the twenties tonight and snow tomorrow. It sure is hard to resist, though, on those warm sunny days.

Kathy Purdy March 25, 2010, 9:20 pm

Jean, I’m glad you followed your instincts. On those first glorious days, one has to do something. There’s usually some pruning to be done, and you can always rake road grit out of the lawn, pick up trash that blew in from who knows where, and sweep the porch. By then the bad weather is back for another spell.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter March 25, 2010, 8:55 pm

It is always a bit of a guessing game when to remove the mulch. I keep it close at hand after I remove it. Fortunately, my animal problems don’t include voles.
.-= Mr. McGregor’s Daughter´s last blog ..A Wildflower for All Seasons: Wildflower Wednesday =-.

Helen Yoest @ Gardening With Confidence March 25, 2010, 8:49 pm

Raleigh’s last frost date is April 15th and we are very likely to have one on or about that date. None-the-less, we get days like today in the 70s and should remain so all week, and we begin to believe winter is behind us. It is hard to resists the temptation to dig in the dirt; but if we do, a freeze will bite.

I have voles too. I loathes those little suckers.

Craig @ Ellis Hollow March 25, 2010, 8:35 pm

Fellow gardener seeking cold climate wisdom: Kathy is at least a Zone colder than we are.

Kathy: I tend to rake way too many leaves onto some key beds in the fall. (That won’t happen now that we’ve taken down the Norway maple.) So most years — this one included — I pull back the leaves so that the early bulbs have an easier time of it.

I expect that if we do get lower teens Friday night, anything in flower will turn to mush. But later blooms aren’t damaged and overall plant vigor (on bulbs, sedums and others that are starting to push) isn’t hurt much.

Or am I just wearing rose colored glasses?
.-= Craig @ Ellis Hollow´s last blog ..Red Clay Halo =-.

Kathy Purdy March 25, 2010, 9:13 pm

You seem to have discerned the identity of my correspondent. Perhaps she sent you the same email? With the exception of the macrophylla hydrangeas (Endless Summer, etc) I don’t really mulch anything. What blows into the beds is permitted to stay, and I can’t say I do much cutting back in fall. So I base my statements on those circumstances. I do unbury the early bulbs where they need my help. I’m really just saying take it slow, and prioritize.

Do you really think snowdrops and crocuses will turn to mush in the face of 13F? I will have to get my camera out on Saturday and chronicle the damage.

Do you really think I am a whole zone colder? Surely only half a zone. If you didn’t have Cayuga Lake moderating your climate, we’d be about the same, don’t you think?

Maybe I am the one wearing rose colored glasses.

Carol, May Dreams Gardens March 25, 2010, 8:27 pm

Kathy, this is excellent advice. Sometimes we just want to hurry up and get the garden clean up done on those first warm days of spring. But the wise gardener waits!