Just stop freaking out about the pandemic, OK? I mean, you should follow the guidelines of the CDC or some other trustworthy experts. But beyond that, freaking out does not help. One good thing about being isolated at home is that we can spend more time in our gardens, right? So let’s talk about spring garden cleanup.

Driveway Border, pre-cleanup

First step in cleaning up for me is whacking down all the perennial plants still standing.

Sidewalk Border after being whacked with my garden scythe

Here’s what the Sidewalk Border looks like post-whacking.

IMG_1279 (3)

My favorite whacking tool is a kind of garden scythe that looks like a cross between a barracuda and a golf club. Here it is leaning against some tomato cages. For this purpose, it’s way easier to use than garden shears. Also, swinging it around is fun and cathartic. Just make sure no one is standing nearby.

After using the garden scythe, I neaten things up using my electric weed whacker.


Sidewalk Border post-cleanup

Once you’ve cut down all the standing plants, you have to figure out what to do with all those dead stems and so on. Approaches to this problem are on a continuum that ranges from letting everything lie where it fell to picking up every scrap of plant matter. Over the years, I have tried both extremes.


These days I follow a middle path. I remove the heavy stems like Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia). Then I remove enough of the other stuff so that the edges of each bed looks reasonably sharp. Everything else remains. Still looks a bit messy but eventually everything is hidden by green growth.

Here’s the Back Garden post-cleanup. The Thicket Corner and Siberian Elm is upper left.

As for the stuff that gets removed, it gets dumped behind the Siberian Elm in the Thicket Corner bed, where it is pretty much hidden.

The Lamppost Bed pre-cleanup

But what about leaves, you ask? That depends. The Parkway and Lamppost Beds tend to get covered in thick, heavy layers of dead foliage. For these beds, I like to rake off most of the leaves, then mulch them with my fabulous electric leaf mulcher, which I write about here. The leaf mulch is then reapplied to the beds. Leaves on the lawn are also shredded.

Everywhere else, in all the other beds and borders, the leaves are allowed to decompose wherever they find themselves.


The standard expectation for gardens is that they should be excessively neat. One reason I can’t get along with landscapers is that they are trying to meet that standard. They cannot understand a client who wants his garden moderately messy.


I’m definitely happy that I went back to doing spring cleanup myself. I saved money, got everything done early, and I took care of the garden the way I wanted.

How is spring cleanup coming along in your garden?

53 Comments on “Thoughts On Spring Garden Cleanup”

  1. Half my garden is nice and tidy, it gets done ready for the snowdrops, the other half has been flooded for weeks with all our rain, it will have to dry out a lot before i can work on it. Now that all the over 70s in the UK have been asked to self isolate for 3 months! I can see that every weed will be removed from the garden and no dust will survive in my house!! I’m not looking forward to not talking to anyone for that length of time, will just have to see how it goes.

    • Good grief. Are there any exceptions being made for those who still work? I’m 73, own my own business, and continue to work every day. If I don’t work, I don’t eat. Tell me to self-isolate for three months, and I’ll die of starvation rather than of the Corona virus. Of course, I work on boats, so I’m more isolated at work than I am otherwise. No one’s out on the docks with me but the gulls and pelicans, and an occasional passerby!

      • Around here they haven’t ordered businesses closed other than bars and restaurants (except for takeout). Schools and some other public facilities are pretty much closed. It’s pretty tough on people in the restaurant business, but folks who are laid off are eligible for unemployment insurance.

  2. Hello Jason, that modern garden scythe thing looks neat. For making the borders look neat without having to pick up every last scrap of material, I just dump a few inches of mulch over the top and all of a sudden it looks like a beautiful, pristine, clean new border, for a couple of weeks, anyway.

  3. My clean up is hit and miss this year. It has been so rainy. I have got things about as cleaned up as they will get though. The big stalks are gone. I have mulched the remaining leaves with the mower. So now I await warmer drier weather to do any more.

  4. Great tips! You chop up the leaves and then immediately use them as mulch on your bed? Still a little frosty in Maine, and although I’ve picked up sticks and pine cones, I haven’t started on the beds yet. Your gardens are always utterly beautiful so your “messy” approach really seems to work like a charm. Stay safe, be well.

  5. So cool to see all your beds without plants, because I know how they look when Jason and Ma Nature have done magic with them! My garden cleanup is progressing nicely. I always start with the beds that have an abundance of early spring bulbs, followed by all the rest. I then add compost atop the beds in one area (3 “areas”, so compost every third year). My back is tired but my gardening heart is happy!

  6. This is very good advice and as soon as my cold is finally over, I’m going out there. I’ve wondered if I couldn’t get by with leaving the leaves, but they do form a pretty heavy mat. Maybe I can get that leaf mulcher for my birthday! I like the idea of leaving the lighter stems on the ground after whacking them down. Great for overwintering insects.

  7. I too have one of those vacuum shredder machines which I like. I also have one of the barracuda scythes/golf club tools. You can work on your golf swing or pretend you are Tiger Woods teeing off at the 18th hole. Being a procrastinator and a volunteer naturalist I wait till it is warmer before cutting down hollow stems and raking up a lot of leaves because they are hibernaculums for overwintering insects and pollinators and their eggs and larvae. At least that’s what I tell myself. I also like my gardens a little messy. Nature is messy, that’s why she is so successful. The “Golden mean” has worked for me in many areas of life.

  8. My cleanup is progressing nicely. When the calendar rolled over to March it was like a switch flipped on the weather. Two weeks warm, dry weather melted all the piles of snow. I would say I’m 85% complete on the cleanup. Which is a good thing, because below average temps and rain/snow are forecast to return on Thursday. I have got to get me a garden scythe before next year’s cleanup! Where did you find it?

  9. We’ve been away for a couple of weeks and the pumpkin vine has taken over the garden! So we definitely need to have a big autumn clean-up. However I’ll be depending on you for a lovely spring and summer garden to keep our spirits up as we transition into winter.

  10. Yes, you are 100% right, panic doesn’t help at all. Keep Calm and Garden On!

    Amazing to my Med. Climate eyes how everything in your borders goes to sleep for the winter! So different from here! I’m not fanatically tidy myself–fallen leaves decompose so nicely–why remove them? Now we have California state working to eliminate green waste from landfills (methane) so I’m composting more, and mulching with clippings where I can.

    Winter clean up long finished–things here already growing!

  11. Looks good! I agree, slightly messy is definitely better than pristine… in my case mainly because I am a bit lazy about cleaning up and also jt only needs one windy night to make it all look messy again! I managed to get my grasses cut down just in time (new growth already showing) and buddleia pruned a few days ago.

  12. I get what you are saying .. EVERYTHING you are saying ! LOL
    I start tomorrow if all goes well … those first days spent cleaning up can be strenuous to say the least.
    So … I am hoping all of that yoga I have been doing will make it much easier on my muscles .. but even with the threat of pain .. I can’t wait to start the process and see what is peeking underneath the dead leaves .. little treasures to be discovered always makes me excited 😉

  13. The day my garden meets the “landscaper standard” is the day hell freezes over. It simply won’t happen! Interesting tool, that barracuda thing – I’ve never seen one of those before. Other than that, I’m with you on the pandemic. I take it deadly seriously, but quite enjoy having time to spend outside in the garden. Took out a shrub that was impeding our driveway today. My husband is very happy!

  14. Just doing my spring clean up one bed at a time, 30 beds, I’m not crazy, I am retired! Lots to do. I more or less do what you do but I use clippers. Loving that tool of yours, where did you get it? I am a messy gardener and in 2 months you can’t see the ground. Also the chickens help with me! Ground is still frozen some mornings so can take my time and enjoy it, I am in N.S. Canada. Love your blog, thanks for sharing.

    • The garden scythe, which is also called a grass shear, I ordered from Ace Hardware. Our family took two trips to Nova Scotia and loved it: Halifax, Cape Breton, Bay of Fundy, Cheticamp. Did a mix of camping and staying at motels. Only area we missed completely was the southern portion. Would love to go back.

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