Spring cleaning in the perennial beds.

Surely spring is the busiest season of the year for the avid perennial gardener.  Fortunately, most of us have been cooped up indoors all winter and are anxious to get outside anyhow, and the cool but pleasant spring weather beckons to our gardening spirit!

Is it time yet?

The dead tops of perennials that have been left to stand through the winter are truly not fussy about when you get around to cutting them back. However, heavy and wet clay soil is not a pleasant thing to slog through, and if you have clay soil it might be better to wait until it has a chance to dry out a bit.  Treading on wet clay can easily lead to soil compaction — retarding soil drainage and reducing the tiny air spaces that plants require for strong and healthy root growth.  Walking within the border too early can also damage the emerging or still-hidden tops of perennials and bulbs.  It’s a better idea to wait a bit until your bulbs at least begin to awaken.  Some gardeners put down pieces of plywood to walk on, which helps to spread the weight and reduce compaction in any one spot.  Another idea is to take advantage of the frozen soil surface first thing in the morning, a sneaky way to get across even a boggy site without causing very much damage.

Which perennials to cut back, and how?

There are basically four types of perennial growth patterns to be aware of when it comes to cutting things back in spring:

1.  Evergreen perennials, including many alpines will require no cutting back or only a minimal amount of tidying up.  By March or April, if the plant looks green and healthy still, then leave it alone.  If just a few leaves are tattered or brown it’s simple enough to trim them back or remove them using sharp scissors or hand pruners.  Spring-flowering alpines, for example: Wall Cress (Arabis), Rock Cress (Aubrieta), Basket-of-Gold (Aurinia), Pinks (Dianthus), Candytuft (Iberis), Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata) may suffer a few brown tips over the winter, but no major pruning should be done until after they finish blooming.  At that time plants may be trimmed back to half their height using a pair of hedge shears, to encourage a dense and bushy habit.

2.  Semi-evergreen perennials sometimes stay completely evergreen in mild winter regions but for many of us they may look so beat up by spring that some of the more tattered leaves need to be removed.  Among these are: Bergenia, Coral Bells (Heuchera), Foamy Bells (Heucherella), Foam Flower (Tiarella, Japanese Sedge (Carex), and various ferns.

3.  The tall, upright flower stems of Shasta Daisies (Leucanthemum), Coreopsis and Rudbeckia die back in late fall, but these plants keep low ground-hugging rosettes of evergreen leaves that become especially obvious in early spring.  Remove the dead upright tops first, then see what the bottom leaves look like.  These too may be trimmed a little if they look untidy, removing dead tips with scissors or shears.  It’s picky work, so if you just ignore them for a bit the new spring growth will quickly freshen up their appearance.

4.  Woody Perennials are better left alone until well into mid-spring before pruning them back.  Generally about 6 inches of woody stem is left at the base for the new buds to appear from.  Accidentally cutting them right back to the ground will sometimes cause these plants to die.  Some examples of woody perennials: Artemisia ‘Huntingdon’ and ‘Powis Castle’, Butterfly Bush (Buddleia), Blue-beard (Caryopteris), Shrubby Wallflower, (Erysimum ‘Bowles’ Mauve’), Fuchsia, St. John’s-wort (Hypericum), Lavender (Lavandula), Tree Mallow (Lavatera), Russian Sage (Perovskia), Cape Fuchsia (Phygelius), Lavender Cotton (Santolina).

True herbaceous perennials are those that die completely back to the ground in winter.  Fortunately, this includes the vast majority of common garden perennials.  With these, it’s an easy decision — cut everything right back to ground level.  A few examples: Peonies, Daylilies, Summer Phlox, Solomon’s Seal, Hosta.

Don’t wait TOO long!

Although cutting back too early can compact the soil badly, waiting until too late in the spring will leave you with a tangled mess of dead plant tops and fresh spring growth.  This is very time-consuming to try and deal with, so waiting until late May for example is something to try and avoid also.

What to do with the dead junk?

Unless you suspect or recall a disease problem from the previous season, the dead tops of most perennials can be chopped into small pieces and added to your compost pile.  Alternating the dead stuff in layers with green lawn clippings and other “green stuff”, along with the occasional shovel-full of garden soil will have your compost pile off to a great start.

Dispose of any dead tops from diseased plants.  Also discard the seedheads of anything you want to discourage from spreading, including both weeds and flowers.

Spring weeding

Once things are cut back and the dead tops raked away, overwintered weeds become fairly obvious.  Get rid of these in the spring while they’re small and well ahead of when they flower and set seed.  Annual weeds (chickweed, garlic mustard) are easy to pull out while the soil is moist. Perennial weeds, particularly deep-rooted ones, may require the help of a fork or dandelion digger to get the entire root system.  Discard the roots of perennial weeds in the garbage, not the compost pile.

Spring Fertilizing

Some gardeners fertilize every spring, others not quite so often.  Newly planted borders are usually good for a couple of years if the soil was prepared well initially.  Older gardens often are re-invigorated by a spring feeding, and if you use a mulch of wood chips or bark it is a wise idea to fertilize your perennials every spring.  When mulch begins to rot the bacteria responsible will rob the soil of available nitrogen.

There are boxes of fancy perennial food readily available in garden centers, and these are fine if your garden is relatively small.  For larger borders it’s a much better deal to buy large bags of all-purpose vegetable garden fertilizer.  Look for something with a high middle number (e.g. 5-10-5, 10-15-10) to promote strong stems and lots of flowers.  Do NOT be tempted to use lawn fertilizer on your perennials — it is too high in the first number, nitrogen.  Also, don’t ever use a “weed and feed” formulation on any part of your garden other than lawn grass.

Whatever product you choose, follow the manufacturer’s rate carefully.  Sprinkle fertilizer AROUND your perennials, not directly on top of the clumps.  This will help to avoid burning the foliage.

To Mulch, or not to mulch…

The benefits of an organic mulch are many.  They add humus-forming organic matter to the soil, improving its structure and eventually supplying food to your perennials.  They cover the soil and smother many seeds, reducing the amount of weeding required.  The biggest benefit with mulching is that it helps to keep the soil cool and moist during the summer months, thereby reducing watering needs and avoiding drought stress.  Mulch should be no thicker than 2—3 inches and should taper off to nothing as it approaches your perennial clumps.  In other words, don’t heap mulch all over and smother your plants to death.

Choose a mulch that is good value.  This varies from region to region, and includes such things as shredded bark, cocoa beans, rice hulls, commercially bagged or municipal compost, composted steer manure, pine needles and many, many other products.  Plain sphagnum peat moss is not a good mulch because it has a tendency to repel water and can blow all over the place.

If you have terrible problems with slugs, consider removing all of your old mulch this spring, leaving the soil exposed to the sun for a few weeks, then replacing with fresh mulch.  This will help to eliminate overwintered slugs, snails and their eggs.

Edge your beds

If you didn’t get around to it last fall, spring is a good time to freshen up those bed edges.  When you do this, try to follow any invading grass roots and remove them entirely before they invade nearby clumps of perennials.

Moving or dividing perennials in the spring

Spring is an ideal time to move or divide the vast majority of perennials, particularly if you live in a very cold region (Zones 1 to 4).  Even the early spring-bloomers can be moved, so long as it gets done before they flower.  This might sacrifice a few blooms for the current season, but next year’s display will be especially grand.

Gardeners often ask us when the best season is to move specific perennials, so we have a working “rule of thumb” for timing.

John’s Rule-of-Thumb for when to move or divide perennials

If the plant blooms between early spring and late June, then early fall division/moving is ideal.  That being said, you can nearly always get away with doing this in spring, if necessary.
If the plant blooms after late June, then early spring division is ideal.
Exceptions to the rule are: Peonies (move/divide in fall only), Oriental Poppies (move/divide in August), Bearded Iris (move/divide in July through September ideally, or spring as a second choice) and true Lilies (move/divide in mid to late fall).

Of course, you can always break the rules and see what happens.  Just remember that if you move or divide a perennial later in the season when it’s big and bushy bushy always cut back the foliage by at least half to prevent serious wilting.  This helps to keep the leaf mass in proportion to the reduced number of roots!

A few other tips:  fall-blooming ornamental grasses that were left for winter interest need to be cut back before any new growth appears from the base.  Some of these, particularly Miscanthus selections, aren’t even going to think about growing until late spring.  Gardeners sometimes take advantage of this and leave a few clumps to stand as a lovely contrast to spring-flowering bulbs.

The old leaves of Lenten Roses (Helleborus orientalis or Helleborus hybridus) should be cut right back to the ground in late winter. This allows the emerging new flowers to be seen at their best.  Do not trim back most other Hellebores, including Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger).
The old leaves and stems of Barrenwort (Epimedium) should also be trimmed to the ground in late winter.
Hellebores and many other woodland plants may have dropped seed last season that will germinate during the cold days of early spring.  Try to be gentle when raking around these, to avoid disturbing any tiny seedlings that might be starting to push through the ground.  If you do notice seedlings, wait until early fall to move them to a new location, or even the following spring.
Bearded Iris of all types tend to carry some green leaves through the winter.  Carefully pull off any dead leaves in spring and dispose of them, since they can harbour the dreaded Iris borer.  If any clumps failed to flower the previous season, you might as well divide them in spring rather than waiting until the traditional summer-dividing time.

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Build a Cold Frame and get an early start on your gardening!

A cold frame is a bottomless box with a skyward-facing window. Like a miniature greenhouse, a cold frame lengthens the gardening season by protecting plants and seeds from the moderately cold temperatures and drying winds of late fall and early spring. With the addition of a simple heater, a cold frame can be used nearly year-round to grow cool-season flowers and vegetables, and to give summer plants an early start.

The low-cost, easy-to-build cold frame presented here takes one or two weekends to build and uses widely available materials. You can place it on a deck or patio to grow plants in pots, or you can place it over a garden bed.


  • 4-x-4-foot sheet of 1/2-inch exterior plywood (or 2 2-x-4-foot panels) plus scraps of 1/4-inch plywood for corner braces
  • 18-gauge perforated steel angle – approximately 3 feet
  • 2 1x3x8-foot clear pine for the top frame
  • Hardware: 25 1/4-inch-diameter by 1-inch-long hex bolts and nuts; 16 washers sized to fit the hex bolts; 4 4-inch steel L-brackets; 45 3/4-inch No. 8 wood screws; 3 3-1/2-inch steel or brass hinges. Expert tip: Buy a few extra bolts and screws.
  • 6-mil poly sheeting, clear, to cover the top of the cold frame
  • Tools: Long ruler or tape measure; saber saw or circular saw; hacksaw; power drill and 1/4-inch bit; screwdriver (or screwdriver bit for drill); staple gun, or a hammer and 3/4-inch roofing nails
  • Optional materials: 1 or 2 4-x-8-foot sheets of 3/4-inch rigid foam board insulation (Foamular or similar). 2 or 3 100-bulb strings of miniature holiday lights. Vinyl tablecloths or blankets.


1. Using a saber saw or circular saw, follow the cutting diagram to make 9-x-48-inch front; a 15-x-48-inch back, and two 48-inch-long sides that slope from 15 to 9 inches wide.

2. Join the side pieces (with the angled cut facing up) to the front and back pieces using the 18-gauge perforated steel angle. (Buy a 3-foot piece and cut it with a hacksaw.) Use the 1/4-inch hex bolts to attach the angles to the plywood. Always use a washer between the head of each bolt and the plywood. The finished box is 48 inches wide by 49 inches long (48 inches for the length of each side plus 1/2-inch thickness for the front and back pieces).
3. To make the lid frame, cut two 8-foot clear pine 1x3s into four pieces: two 46 1/2 inches long; two 47 1/2 inches long. These four pieces can be arranged to form a frame that is 49 inches by 50 inches. Join these pieces using 4-inch steel L-brackets on the underside. Expert tip: Before you cut, verify that these measurements will produce a lid frame that will overlap the sides and front of your box approximately one inch. To accommodate the hinges, the lid frame will be flush with the back of the box.
Flip the lid frame over. Cut triangles from the 1/4-inch exterior plywood scraps and attach them to the top side of the lid frame using 4-3/4-inch-long No. 8 wood screws in each brace.
4. To hinge the lid to the box, use the three 3-1/2-inch hinges. Attach the hinges to the underside of the lid frame first, using 3/4-inch-long No. 8 wood screws.
Next, lay the lid frame atop the box and used the hinges to mark the location for drilling 1/4-inch holes on the outside of the back of the box. Use 1/4-inch hex bolts to fasten the hinges to the plywood. Use washers between the nuts and the plywood.If the lid and/or the box is not quite square, you can push on the corners of the box to adjust the shape.
5. To complete the project, remove the hinge bolts from the box, then unscrew the hinges from the lid frame. (To make it easier to get everything back together, number the hinges and their location on the lid frame. Also, mark the location of the screw holes in the lid frame by circling them with a bold marker.Wrap the lid frame with a single layer of 6-mil poly plastic sheeting. Start with a piece of poly sheeting about 4 1/2 feet wide by about 10 feet long. Use the staple gun or roofing nails to secure the poly sheeting to the lid frame. To reduce tearing, use strips of thin cardboard between the poly and the fasteners. Try to get the covering as taut as possible, and avoid getting multiple layers of poly on the hinge side of the lid.
6. Place the covered lid atop the box, and reattach the hinges to the box with the bolts.Your cold frame is now ready to use and will protect plants from cool weather. A very important note: Your cold frame will warm up very quickly when the sun is shining directly on it. Always prop open the lid a little on bright sunny days, even if the air temperature is cool. On some days, you may want to open the lid completely. Always close the lid before nightfall to preserve the day’s warmth.The Simple approachIf you aren’t handy with tools you may be able to put together a cold frame today with simple materials you have lying around.An old bathtub with a shower door on top would make a fine cold frame. Or you could stretch a spare scrap of clear plastic over a cardboard box.  I’ve even seen gardeners cover a struggling plant with a plastic milk jug as a  tiny makeshift cold frame.You could build a heated cold frame with a straw bale and an old salvaged window. It keeps your plants toasty warm through the heat produced during decomposition. As the straw bales compost, they heat up – in some cases so much so that they start to smoke!

Raised cold frames are becoming popular because they are easier to access and do not require their  user to squat or kneel. Make sure if you are designing a raised cold frame you make your legs strong enough to support  your chosen growing medium.

Cold frames are most useful for hardening off seedlings that have been started indoors or in a heated greenhouse. Most plants should not spend their entire lives in a cold frame. As always, first decide what you want to grow, then choose your greenhouse strategy based on your crop’s heat and space requirements.

Useful Tips

Insulation is critical to keeping temperature swings from overwhelming your cold frame inhabitants. The easiest way to insulate your cold frame is with pieces of 3/4- or 1-inch-thick rigid foam insulation board. This material can be cut and shaped easily with a utility knife. Expert tip: Make sure you’re using extruded polystyrene insulation, not the crumbly white insulation.Expert Tip
To improve the insulation power of the lid, cut a 2-inch-wide strip of insulation and tape it to the inside of the poly film before attaching it to the lid frame; this will help maintain an air space between the two layers of poly.On cold nights, place some pieces of insulation atop the lid, then cover everything with an old plastic tablecloth. Taken together, these steps will help keep temperatures in the cold frame from dropping too much.You can also moderate temperature swings by adding water-filled milk jugs inside the cold frame. The water warms during the day, then releases that heat slowly at night.If you’ll be using the cold frame on a deck or patio, consider setting it atop a couple of layers of the rigid foam board insulation.

Adding Heat
You can heat your cold frame with special warming cables or mats. A simple way to  raise the air temperature in a well-insulated cold frame approximately 10 degrees is by plugging in a string of 100 miniature holiday lights (still in their box). You may need to use several sets to heat the cold frame on very cold nights. If you’re using the cold frame on a deck or patio, put scraps of 1/2-inch plywood under the lights to prevent damage to the surface or insulation. If you can keep the temperature at 40 degrees or higher, you can grow many cool-weather plants like lettuce, radishes, and pansies.

Using Your Cold Frame

Resist the urge to fill up your new cold frame right away. Like a new baby, a new cold frame demands a lot of attention at first and can be very demanding. You’ll need to be watchful of the weather, deciding early in the day whether to crack the lid a bit or keep it closed. And you’ll have to be religious about covering the cold frame at night if the temperature is going to drop below freezing.

A great tool for helping you decipher your cold frame’s personality is an electronic remote thermometer. They have a sensor you can put in the frame, and a remote read-out that you keep inside. Most have functions that let you review the high and low temperature over any time period.

Once you get to know your cold frame, you can start using it to grow just about anything you’d grow in a greenhouse — provided it fits under the lid. By far, the best role for your cold frame is to give you an extra-early head start on growing plants for the coming gardening season.