As my garden has gotten larger and larger and my time seemingly less and less, my approach to garden chores has gotten decidedly more blase. I think the maturity that comes with gardening for many years has also played a role in this. I just don’t sweat the small stuff like I used to. Fact is, plants are resilient. Healthy plants, wisely chosen, planted in good ground are fairly forgiving.
For instance, this past weekend was a very welcome respite of above normal temperatures in a long winter of week after awful week of below normal temperatures. This created a perfect storm of both an undeniable need to get outside and do something and an outside full of stuff to do.
So I finally got outdoors and my first step was to drag out my string trimmer with a metal blade. The blade looks and works just like a circular saw blade, but it is on the end of a 6 foot shaft with maybe a couple horses of Stihl 2-cycle engine powering it. Great tool to begin cleaning up the garden with! In a few passes, all of my ornamental grasses and plenty of spent perennials were shaved off at the ground. There is always a bit of collateral damage when I use this thing–a young, forgotten shrub might get beheaded or perhaps the bark of a tree gets nicked. But the time it saves and the feeling of accomplishment it brings is well worth that cost.
The next tool that comes out is the ordinary string trimmer, which quickly dispatches any perennials that remain tucked in too close to buildings, walls, and other plants to shear off with the blade.
In the past, it would be at this point that I would rake all the material out into the lawn, gather it all up, and haul it off to the woods. A few years ago, I learned that once the material was in the lawn it was perfectly okay to run over it with the mower several times. All the dried grasses and stems would chop up nicely and I could then blow or rake them back into the garden beds. If I did this early enough, much of the duff would already be broken down by the time spring came around. The remainder is quickly hidden by all the new, lush growth of plants when they grow. Of course, some really huge grasses present too much volume to dispatch like this, but most material disappears like it was never even there. It’s nice.
This year, I saved yet another step. I just mowed over the perennial beds themselves. This was made possible because my old mower needed replacing. I’m hell on mowers, and this one went to its reward very, very young. Oh well. I guess that’s what happens when you beat them by mowing sticks and twigs, amsonia, and big bundles of grasses. My fate, my punishment was to have to fork over enough cash to buy a new one. The silver lining was that my new mower happened to have a much higher setting for the mower deck. It can mow very high, like five or six inches high! It also had a more powerful (and quieter, I might add) engine. It is the perfect tool for pushing overtop Perovskia, perennial geraniums, Japanese anemones, asters, goldenrods, baptisias, peonies, whatever, and chopping them to oblivion. So I mowed all my beds. I ran over everything, and it saved me a boat load of time! In half a day, an entire garden of exhausted “winter interest” was lain to waste.
Yes, it is true there could have been some collateral damage. I was lucky the daffodils were just barely poking up and the crocuses are not out yet, so I could roll right over them; but I did not see my Deutzia ‘Nikko’ in time and might have mostly disembowed it a little. (It has never performed that well anyway. If it had, I would’ve remember it, and this would not have happened! So, really, it was the ‘Nikko’s’ own fault.). And, who knows, I might have knocked off an occasional baptisia, peony, or hosta eye with a wheel. I guess we will have to see, but I’m willing to wager that the garden will come in full and beautiful when the time comes and whatever I destroyed will go unnoticed.
I think too often gardeners lose the forest for the trees. In getting caught up in how to do things right, they often don’t do them at all, or they wind up hating the chores and then gardening. The fact is that in a well-made garden with healthy and wisely chosen plants and good soil, plants are resilient. I said that before, but it bears repeating. Last year’s dried, dead foliage doesn’t really care if it is cut back lovingly with a brand new pair of expensive Felcos or with the whirling, rusty blade of a lawn mower. Whether the spent debris is hauled away or raked in, matters very little. Yes, such detritus might harbor pathogens. You hear that all the time, but it might also harbor the eggs of predator insects that will eat aphids too. Who knows? Who cares? What matters is that gardening is fun, relatively easy, and not a complete blackhole of your time. One of the old, great English gardeners was asked once when was the best time to perform a certain task. I forget the gardener and the quote exactly, but I remember the gist of his answer. He could have harked upon his knowledge and years of experience and given a detailed answer for when it should be done and why, but his answer was simply, “When you have the time and tool to do it and you see it needs to be done.”
And when you get that nice weekend in mid-February, and you have a new mower with a high deck, and your leftover perennials and grasses are all standing around looking like zombies that want to eat your brains, get out there and mow them down!
Scott Beuerlein, copyright 2011