I hate to admit it to you Southerners, but when the snow melts, what it invariably reveals is…a mess. I’m not just talking about the dead vegetation that needs to be cut back. There’s human-made messes that ought to be dealt with, too. But let’s talk about the plants first.
Cut back and clear out dead plant materialIn autumn, there are some plants that are still looking good when the first snow flies. The gardener hates to cut them back when they are still giving pleasure, especially since there are so many ugly things to be cut back first. Before you know it, it is cold enough that the gardener —this gardener, anyway—realizes that there’s just as much that needs cleaning up inside as outside, and it’s warmer inside. So the chore gets left until spring.
With the exception of the exceptional foliage plants featured in this month’s Bloom Day post, most every plant in the garden is represented by a pile of slimy brown mush when the snow cover finally melts. Some plants get an early start out of the gate in spring, however, and they will look more attractive in their early spring greeness if the brown gook is cleared away.
How do you know which ones are the early ones? Well, that is what your garden notebook is for! Didn’t you make note of which plants put out early growth and write it down so you wouldn’t forget? Let’s pretend you just started your perennial garden last year, so this is your first spring with your new plants. Practice your powers of observation:After several years’ experience, I now know that if I don’t take the hedge shears to the twiggy remains of the catmint as soon as the snow melts, I will have to snip out each long twig individually at the base in April, or look at an unsightly mix of dead and living stems until well into June. In most cases, leaving the dead stuff there may look ugly, but doesn’t harm the plant. Hellebores are one notable exception. The old leaves can trap moisture, leaving the new growth vulnerable to rot.
Snow removal leaves a mess
I find myself needing to explain things to you Southerners again. When the roads get icy, or only a little bit of snow is anticipated, the highway trucks drive through applying a combination of salt and grit. The salt lowers the freezing point of water and the grit improves traction. When we get significant snow accumulation, the trucks must push (plow) the snow off the road, leaving it piled along the edges of every street. As you might imagine, a lot of that grit mixes with the snow as it is scraped off the road and thrown to the side. When the snow melts, you often find this:This is also why gravel or any other loose stone is a poor choice for a northern driveway. Eventually it will all be shoveled or plowed off with the snow. I have to confess that raking this stuff out is not a top priority. The grass will grow up through it, and you’ll never know it was there in another month. But in some springs you get all the pruning and trimming done and it’s gorgeous out and since it’s too early to do anything else, well, it’s nice to have this chore to fall back on.
Don’t clean up too much, too soon
It’s tempting to rake away every bit of detritus on the first warm day, but that’s not a good idea. With the loss of snow cover, plants are actually more vulnerable now than when they were buried under the white stuff. We’ve already had a few days in the high 50s and hit 60F once, but this morning at 7am it was 9F. Imagine a plant coaxed out of dormancy being socked with that kind of a temperature drop. I’ve had a lot of plants come through the winter just fine, only to be killed by the vagaries of mud season. Biennials that bring a rosette of leaves through the winter, such as foxgloves, seem to be especially vulnerable. It seems counter-intuitive to cover a plant that made it through the winter just fine, and yet sometimes I wonder if that’s what I should do. Of course, it never occurs to me until after the mercury plummets, and by then it’s too late. And I wonder what kind of material would offer additional protection without trapping too much moisture, encouraging rot. Got any suggestions?