Use the first nice days of the season for a spring garden clean up for your flower beds! See the before and afters plus get tips for cutting back, weeding, and keeping the weeds down all season so you can enjoy the flowers.
If you’re a gardener – or simply view yourself as someone who grows flowers or vegetables – getting the garden beds cleaned up and ready for the new season is always a goal in late winter and early spring.
So you can relate when I say that it feels good to say that two garden tasks were accomplished during the second weekend of March:
- The vegetable garden was awakened for the spring (mulching the asparagus, pruning fruit trees and bushes, cleaning up dead plants, and getting two beds mulched and ready for pea and spinach planting).
- The flower bed we see from the dining room and kitchen was cleaned up and weeded.
I wrote about prepping some of the vegetable beds here, but I thought I’d also share some tips and techniques for spring cleaning your flower beds because if you get to them as soon as possible, you can make them almost weed free for the rest of the season.
We’ll use the bed you can see in the photo above for the example. It’s all nice and tidy there, but here’s how it started out that morning:
Yep, same bed I promise. Brown stalks from the previous year mingling with the new spring growth that is already pretty full. Along with weeds, of course. Oh, well – it makes it easier to see what needs to be done, doesn’t it?
Why clean up the garden in spring
I’m a spring cleaner-upper vs. a fall one for a number of reasons:
- In the fall I’m usually too busy with preserving the harvest to attempt any clean up.
- Most plants survive winter better with the cover of the previous season.
- Birds eat the seeds of the dried flowers.
- And roses and plants need spring pruning anyway.
Plus, where I live in the western Oregon valley most things in the garden still look good through October. So the motivation is not there to do anything until November and well, it’s all about the holidays come November, isn’t it?
Spring Garden Clean Up
This shrub and perennial bed is about 6 x 20 feet, planted with a few evergreen shrubs, roses, and perennials.
It took about one and a half hours to go from the before state you see above to the after:
Here’s how to tackle a spring garden clean up like this:
- Start with the tallest, most overgrown plants first. In this case, the roses and clematis. I cut all of them down to about 2-3 feet. The roses are shrub varieties and we have such a problem with black spot here that I find it’s best just to cut the roses back hard. They flower later, but tend to be much healthier (at least in the beginning of the season). These clematis grow many feet every year, so I cut them back to keep them sized for the trellises.
- Prune evergreens if needed. Pruning and shaping will be easiest now, before the perennials grow bigger and make reaching the evergreens more difficult. The only shrubs I shape are the boxwoods here to keep them sized for the bed.
- Pull weeds and cut off any dead plant parts. Start on one side of the bed and move to the other side.
- Prune and/or cut back any existing perennials (see specific examples below).
- Edge the bed, if needed. If it’s a grass border, it will always be needed. At least if you live in the Pacific NW.
- Lay down newspaper and cover with a mulch of compost or bark. This is my not-so-secret secret to a weed-free flower border (I’ve been telling you guys for years…). Please do this if you haven’t – I promise it will make your life SO much easier! TIP: Watch the video here for more details.
Here’s the thing – if you do all these steps as early as you can in spring, you will not have much to do in a bed like this for the entire growing season. Trimming a few plants and pulling a weed or two is about it.
However…if you get to step 5 and don’t have compost or time to lay the paper and mulch and wait for 1-2 more months, you will have to weed all over again because they will be too out of control to even cover with the paper.
This I know from ample experience…sigh.
Tips to cut back flowering perennials
The photo above shows what a Moonbeam Coreopsis looks like when left over the winter.
This is actually a plant that I would never cut back in the fall, even if I did clean beds then. I’ve found that the only way I can get this to overwinter consistently is to leave the dead growth for winter cover.
There actually was a time I’d do a more thorough fall clean up and I had to buy and replant the coreopsis more often. Now, however, with leaving the foliage over winter, it just gets bigger and bigger.
To clean up non-woody perennials like coreopsis:
- Cut all the dead, browned stems back.
- Don’t just pull, as the plants are often shallow-rooted and you will pull up the plant.
- Try a combination – mostly cutting with a bit of pulling just to remove any brown stems left behind.
- Remove any weeds or encroaching seedlings from other plants.
Note: the green leaves you see in the before photo are actually seedlings of an early spring blooming geranium-type plant which I pulled. It’s really not too aggressive, and it blooms and leafs out earlier than many other plants, so I leave it – pulling the seedlings and sometimes replanting them in hard-to-grow areas. You can see the clump I left to the right in the after photo.
Yarrow, Sweet William, Hardy Geranium
This is the farthest corner of the flower bed from the house and holds yarrow (right corner), sweet william (center), and a mystery hardy geranium (upper left).
You can also see here that the grass has really taken over.
After lots of cutting back using the techniques above and weeding of the grasses, it looks more like a flower bed again.
Yarrow Tip: I don’t clean up the yarrow completely now – it’s a plant I often lose, so I like to see where the new growth is and will clean it up a bit more in May.
Now all that’s left to do is layer on the newspaper and mulch. With this clean up and then the layering paper and compost I won’t have to do anything to this area other than deadheading through the season. The compost will break down and provide all the fertilizing the plants will need.
Are you ready to do your own spring garden clean up?
Want more easy gardening tips & techniques? Check out these articles:
- 8 Easy Steps To A New Shrub and Flower Bed
- Spring Clean Up: Asparagus and Strawberry Beds
- Simple Steps to Spring Garden Cleanup (& Printable Checklist)
- Spring Garden Ideas from Magnolia Silos
This article has been updated – it was originally published in March of 2013.
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