As a design/build landscape firm, we began offering spring cleanups and garden maintenance because our clients were frustrated with mowing companies pulling out their perennials. As self-identified plant geeks, we knew we could provide this service while leaving the mowing to lawn specialists. And, as we applied ecological techniques to spring cleanups over the years, we learned that these techniques can also save our clients’ money. Interestingly, the most common type of spring clean up is the least ecological and the most expensive. Below, we list cleanup options in order of ecological function and explain how the best ones also save you money.
Best: Selective Cutbacks
Perennials are an important part of your yard’s ecosystem. Some insects overwinter in plant stems and, upon emerging, feed birds and other animals. Others, like mason bees, are important pollinators. Many of these insects emerge when temperatures reach 50 degrees, which may occur after your spring cleanup is scheduled. Other insects may use these stems over the summer and emerge in the fall.
For this cleanup option, cut back perennials, leaving the ones with hollow stems. It is always good to have some hollow stems in your garden because different insect species may use them at different times of year. Species with hollow stems include bee balm (Monarda spp.), Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium spp.), milkweeds (Aesclepias spp.) and goldenrods (Solidago sp.). If you would like to neaten the bed a little more, cut the stems to 18″. Leave the cut perennial stems in the beds to replace traditional mulch. When beds are filled with perennials, new growth covers the debris within a few weeks. For more information about gardening for pollinators, read The right way to leave stems for native bees.
Next: Cut and Compost
Similar to selective cutbacks, this option leaves perennial chaff in the beds, but all plants are cut back. Cut the hollow-stemmed plants at the base and place them in an area to be composted. Insects are still able to emerge when the weather warms in the spring. Insects that emerge in the fall will need to find other places to nest. This choice eliminates the need for additional mulch and has similar labor costs to option one.
Third: Mow and Mulch
Chop perennials with a mower or line trimmer and leave them in the beds. Make sure you do not cut the crowns of the perennials, so keep the mower at least 4″ high. 6″ is even better. This option disrupts the food chain provided by many of the overwintering insects, but nutrients for your plants remain. Use chopped perennials in place of mulch. If you prefer the look of traditional mulch, apply a thin layer over the cut perennials. The reduced amount of mulch needed and the reduced labor in removing the cut material results in savings.
Last: Cut and Remove
Cutting and removing perennials is the least ecological option because it disrupts the lifecycle of many types of insects. It is also expensive because it is labor intensive and additional mulch is necessary. If you decide upon this option, choose mulch such as composted leaf mulch or pine straw mulch that allows ground nesting insects to reach the soil. Bark mulch and wood mulch form dense layers that makes this impossible. If you really love the traditional look of bark or wood mulch, try using it only along the edges of the beds and spread it thinly.
All clients and properties are different. We will be happy to customize your Spring Cleanup plan! To discuss the best plan for you, please contact us!