March Garden Tasks: Cleaning Up Too Early

We had a one-day preview of spring today, with temperatures reaching into the low 60’s. The lawn is waterlogged and just starting to turn green, but the temperature made me eager to clean up some of the garden.

The problem is it is much too soon. I do very little cleanup in my yard in the fall and leave most of the plant matter standing until spring. The stems provide places for beneficial insects to hibernate over the winter. The berries and seedpods provide food for winter and early spring birds when other food sources are lacking. The leaf matter provides cover for insects and frogs that winter under and on the ground. A clean garden in the winter and early spring is a garden that is not making space for wild and insect life.

I know this, and still the urge to have a nice tidy garden this time of year, when the freshness of spring is a promise, is difficult for me to overcome. I know that one warm day is not enough for the insects to emerge. Some will take a few days of warmth. Some will take a month. Others will wait until well into summer. If I clear the debris now, those instects – solitary bees, ladybugs, spiders – will die. Is a tidy garden worth their lives?

And so I make a compromise. On warm spring days like this one I go out into the yard and look around. Which plants came through the winter the worst? Which are falling over, barely standing, generally making a nuisance of themselves? And those are the ones that I carefully remove, just to satisfy my own urge to be doing something. (Oh, and my neighbors’ urge to not have to look at my disaster any longer.) This year it was the cup plants that needed to go early. The huge stems, most reaching 7 or even 8 feet tall, whee bending over in every which direction. Some laid perfect flat on the ground. Others leaned against the deck, the hazelnut bushes, the newly planted magnolia.

I removed them carefully, pulling the stems gently from the ground, or using my trusty Felco pruners to cut the stems that did not pull easily. Once removed, I propped them very carefully in the compost bin. Hopefully any sleeping beauties hiding within their stems and petrified leaves will stay safely nestled in their places until they are ready to emerge!

One of my favorite things to look for in the spring garden are vole trails. In the summer, voles tend to stay underground where they are safe from hawks and owls, but in the winter when snow provides cover for them, they are free to roam on top of the grass for a change. They build extensive tunnels across the ground, nibbling away the grass as they go. I love the idea of an entire subnivean world that remains completely unseen to us until the snow melts. And I love thinking about how happy the sweet little voles must be to walk on top of the earth for a change.

My other task today was to check the sweet cherry tree. This tree has not been a very successful one in my yard. We are too far north for sweet cherries to do well, although pie cherries thrive here. But this cherry has had an exceptionally hard time. A severe pruning job several years ago opened the tree up to a fungus. I’ve been watching a parasitic shelf mushroom steadily take over the still-living tree. I’ve contemplated removing it every year since, hoping to perhaps replace it with a plum tree that will take the place of my (also) struggling plums.

But every time I look at it, it is full of life. Ants crawl up its bark to drink from its extra-floral nectaries. Did you know these exist? I did not until I grew this tree! Extra-floral nectaries are just what they sound like – places on the plant (in this case, brigt red little nodules at the base of the leaves) which produce nectar but are not flowers. How amazing! The ants love them. And beyond the train of ants coming up the bark, there are the birds that cleverly wedge nuts and seeds into the now-peeling bark of the tree in order to get the leverage they need to crack open their shells. And just this spring I see the holes of woodpeckers searching for the insects that until now had remained hidden under the tree’s bark. It would be hard to justify removing this tree right now when it provides so much.

Woodpecker holes in a particulary fungusy section of the cherry tree.

One last photo for the day, and it is a sad one. Winters here are harsh and a lot of wildlife does not make it through them. This little cedar waxwing did not, and the stunning flash of yellow on his tail caught our eye as we walked the dogs this afternoon. There is so much beauty still in his mangled body, and the chance to contemplate the magnitude of his existance left me feeling humbled and awed by nature.

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