By the beginning of April, seed starting has been featuring heavily on the gardener’s weekend to-do list, claiming what little time we have between catch-up laundry and filing the dreaded 1040.  By the time we finally draw breath and look around at the new life perhaps springing out of hedgerow and front walkway, it has already sprung, and seedling flats must take second place to a good pair of pruners.

This may be a huge job, or a small one, depending on what you did last fall.


The fairly new entrance garden needs some major work.

There are two schools of thought at the end of autumn. One, that the gardener neatens and puts the last of his back out in a final, pre-Christmas wrestle with Nature; or two, that he ignores it and goes to Puerto Rico for a long, well deserved holiday.

pruning-sawThe brilliance of the second plan is that, correctly spun, the gardener is merely showing great deference for the wild creatures that inhabit his garden during the winter – giving them the food, lodging and general succor that is less and less available as our wild spaces fall prey to the developer’s magic re-zoning pen.  It is rare thing when our altruistic moments coincide with our more self-interested ones, and thus I embrace this plan whole heartedly. Including the bit about Puerto Rico.

But before facing the job before us now there is a mental adjustment to be made. I have gotten quite used to the shapes of last year’s garden in all its muted, disheveled sweetness, and have a hard time letting go – even with the promise of new and better growth ahead.

The grasses are the hardest to see go, with their punctuated rhythms that create flow and echo tawny color throughout the garden; but the fertile fronds of the ostrich and sensitive ferns are also mourned. They are present in such abundance and mark territory that will be dormant for a few weeks yet. And the less I say about the rounded hips on the roses the better.

Thus it is a final goodbye to last year and a trust that all will return in even greater glory in the season ahead.  I trust, therefore I shear.

Here are a few tips for your shearing – hopefully making the process easier and faster.

  1. Create small accomplishments. It’s usually a big job. Make a decision to work on a section of your garden or a particular type of plant and see that job through to the end, not going on to another if you finish early, or even if you don’t.  For example, cut back all the roses, or all the grasses, or all the ferns – or simply deal with the area around the front door. Don’t move on to the fertilizing, or the dividing, or the whimpering in a corner.
Putting this cleanup into two separate projects of cutting back and mulching means I could feel like I accomplished something with the small amount of time I had, even though there is still work to be done.

Putting this cleanup into two separate projects of cutting back now and mulching later means I can feel like I accomplished something with the small amount of time I have – even though there is still work to be done.

  • Run a little hand held sharpener over your pruners and loppers and keep it with you for periodic re-sharpening (You can find them at any big box, independent garden center or online.) Sharp pruners make all the difference for the health of your plant and for the speed at which you can prune.
  • Keep a wheelbarrow with you to contain the debris before it goes on the ground and makes piles you “need to get to” in another four weeks.  Clean as you go and you’ll feel better about what you did.
  • Add a few plastic trugs to your tool shed, allowing you to bring them into beds, fill them and dump them into the wheelbarrow instead of flinging bits of rose cane from the middle of the beds in the general direction of the wheelbarrow.
  • Cutting back grasses can be a tiring job.  If you have many, you may want to invest in a small battery operated hedge trimmer which makes extremely short work of a large job (I use the Ego 56V series and adore it).  Make it easier still by tying garden twine around the girth of the grass, and then cutting low at the base.  You’ll have an easily managed bunch of dried grass to dispose of.
  • Don’t go crazy and start whacking back plants that aren’t going to show you new buds for a while yet such as fig, chaste tree, and crepe myrtle.  They’ll let you know what kind of winter they had soon enough.
  • Our wacky weather killed many new buds last month, but affected plants such as hydrangea may yet have life below the killed layers in the bud itself.  Take a wait and see approach.
  • Cutting back can be a satisfying spring job, but you may want to make changes in your timing (fall/winter) depending on what you’re seeing out there now (such as a huge amount of seedlings from those grass heads). I’ll be rethinking the extra mulch I’ve piled on canna, as most of it has simply given cover to new dynasties of voles, who have very much enjoyed the comforts of shelter and a good meal, and are excited about the new grandkids three holes down.