Mud Season Chores: Cleaning up

– Posted in: Garden chores, Mud Season

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 material

This catmint is poised for growth.

Only March 11th and this catmint is already poised for growth. Most of the crocuses haven't opened yet.

In 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:

Early new spring growth is often a deep red, making it difficult to see. This columbine still needs its dead foliage trimmed back.

Early new spring growth is often a deep redor dusky purple, making it difficult to see. This columbine still needs its dead foliage trimmed back.

The lime green nubbins of Hot Stuff sedum are readily visible against the dark earth.

The lime green nubbins of Hot Stuff sedum are readily visible against the dark earth. This new growth was actually visible last fall.

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.
I usually wait a little longer before trimming the veronica, because some new growth sprouts from last year's stems. A more ruthless gardener would probably just grab all the stems and make one cut.

I usually wait a little longer before trimming the veronica, because some new growth sprouts from last year's stems. A more ruthless gardener would probably just grab all the stems and make one cut.

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:

The grit that was used to provide traction last winter shows up on the mud season lawn.

The grit that was used to provide traction last winter shows up on the mud season lawn.

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?

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.

When dealing with frost it is always best to be paranoid. In the spring never think it is too late for one more frost to come. And in the fall never think it too early.

~Rundy in Frost

Comments on this entry are closed.

mss @ Zanthan Gardens March 31, 2009, 10:45 pm

You do make me glad to be a Southerner (although I’m sure we can reverse the sentiment in August). The only cleanup I’m doing is *still* raking up leaves. The trees have already leafed out for the spring and I’m still chasing down (oak leaves mostly) that are wedged in the yuccas and agaves. Prickly work.

mss @ Zanthan Gardens’s last blog post..Rose ‘Ducher’

eliz March 29, 2009, 8:00 pm

My whole thing is the maple leaves. They insinuate themselves everywhere and never disintegrate. Seems like I am clearing them all year around.

Annie in Austin March 27, 2009, 10:44 am

The ground in my Austin, TX garden doesn’t freeze, but like MMD, most of my garden life was spent in Chicagoland. I’m enjoying a nostalgic wallow in your Mud Season posts, Kathy! Your writing is so clear and informative.

My zone 8 garden may be warmer than yours, but we also have those chancy times when the dormant perennials wake up too soon and could get frost-nipped. Because the ground is warmer, usually just covering the crown with an overturned flower pot is enough protection for one chilly night.

Happy Crocus-Time!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

jane March 26, 2009, 9:20 pm

What a treat to find your blog, Kathy! Being a newbie at the wonderfully addictive and thoroughly enjoyable hobby of gardening, I’ve been searching for blogs to reference. I’m even more delighted you are in a chillier zone like myself.

Did anyone else find yourself (and your garden) taken a bit off guard by winter at the end of ’08? I was just pruning some shrubs this past weekend and found some leaves on them…still green. They had been flash-frozen by the sudden arrival of tons of snow!

Kelly, I had just read up on foxglove and how to handle it in the spring. My looks absolutely terrible right now. However, it was recommended on a few sites to leave the dead foliage for now since it acts as a natural mulch for the plant. When the dangers of frost are gone, you can cut away any winter-damaged leaves.

Bren/ BGgarden March 26, 2009, 9:09 am

This has been a crazy WARM spring for us in the Midwest. I will agree with you that the clean up is messy but don’t you just love being outside again.

Happy Spring – you have a wonderful blog that I enjoy to check weekly.

Gardendesigner March 25, 2009, 11:27 am

I am up here in Wisconsin… and we had a false taste of warm weather a couple weeks ago, Now its So cold, rainy and damp! I am dying to get out and cut back the debris, especially before the bulbs start popping up! I know If I wait even a couple days too late, I will lose a whole early season of loveliness! I am going to try an experiment this year with my foxgloves… and tuck in some wood shavings Lightly under and around the foliage. I planted 15 late last summer! and I sure hope They can bloom this year!

The Rhinestone Contessa

Kathy Purdy March 25, 2009, 9:05 pm

I don’t have wood shavings, but I do have a pile of leaves. I might do the same.

Christina March 25, 2009, 7:41 am

You’re a little ahead of us, here in Maine. No crocuses yet – I keep checking the not-snow-covered bed. We still have an unfortunate amount of snow in the yard, but it is finally melting…

Kathy Purdy March 25, 2009, 9:04 pm

Do you have the smaller, earlier crocuses (called species or snow crocus)? None of my big(ger) Dutch crocuses are blooming yet.

Lydia Plunk March 25, 2009, 12:36 am

How interesting. You have mud season. In Southern California we have fire and mudslide season. And back ache season because there is always too much to do when the weather is always good.

Diana March 24, 2009, 9:54 pm

Very interesting, Kathy. It’s not all flowers and fun, is it? Sorry you had 9 F this morning, but it is good that you are getting some warmer, sunny days. I remember plow messes from living 4 yrs in MN. I have to say, for all my August complaining (!), I’m happy with my extremes!

Kelly March 24, 2009, 9:40 pm

Wondering about my foxgloves, too, this past weekend (in NH). With the snowcover gone, what’s the call: clear away the dead foliage, which looks as if it will go grey and gummy the moment things get warmer and wetter, or keep it in place (until we’re safely well into April?) to protect the leaves that came through the winter green?

Kathy Purdy March 25, 2009, 9:01 pm

Kelly, I don’t clean up foxglove foliage till later. I just might take MMD’s suggestion and top them off with some dry shredded leaves.

Lynn March 24, 2009, 8:45 pm

Kathy, you’ve inspired me to create my first garden notebook. I don’t have to pretend I just started a perennial garden 🙂 and the Columbine I found today while pulling back mulch was purplish! And beautiful. Thanks, as always.

Kathy Purdy March 25, 2009, 9:03 pm

Lynn, a garden notebook really helps. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. Just write down when you do things and when things emerge from the ground and/or bloom. Then next year when you wonder, “When did I do . . .?” you’ll have the answer.

Cameron (Defining Your Home Garden) March 24, 2009, 5:39 pm

Yes, I guess we’re lucky down here in the South. Our clean up from winter is much easier.


Mr. McGregor's Daughter March 24, 2009, 4:34 pm

I’ve lived in Chicagoland all my life, so I take all this stuff for granted. I should have taken a photo of my front lawn at the curb last year. Or I should say where the lawn used to be. The gouge is still visible. Snow is such a great insulator that I too have lost plants after the big melt. I’m trying to leave the winter mulch in place longer and putting it back on when the temperature plummets. I used shredded leaves piled on very thickly. The outer layers get wet, but the inner layers stay pretty dry.

MA March 24, 2009, 3:42 pm

Boy oh boy! Do I hear you on the indoor/outdoor messes. And with a dog, all the outdoors comes indoors. I just go slow, and steady. Today it’s all of 48, so the taxes will get done. As the week warms up, I’ll do less inside and move outside.

It is such a joy to see the crowns of the sedums, the fresh green leaves of the apache plume, and the fattening buds of the apricots. And the mud. Mud of course, means water. And water in the desert is a very good thing.