Garden Maintenance – Spring Cleanups

Spring cleanups are starting. Even though spring is my favorite time of the year, cleanups are not my favorite thing to do. Especially as I get older, cutting back grasses, perennials, and shrubs, and leaf pick ups just do not sound as inviting as they once did. I still love working here, but more and more I want to discuss landscape problems and diagnose tree issues. But there will always be spring cleanups.

Spring is the time for re-emergence, rebirth of the earthly things around us. Life is stirring around the garden, so we must prepare for it. Also, I see the importance of leaving some things alone, or doing cleanups different than what I was taught. Leave those leaves as much as possible. Downed tree? Let it be. Remove invasive plants and replace with natives. Put clippings and cuttings in compost or brush piles. Mulch deeper than before.

Leaving the Leaves

What are leaves to the gardener? Many see leaves as an unnecessary nuisance that happens every fall through early spring and must be picked up. To others, leaves are the main source of carbon and nutrients in the compost pile and represent next year’s vegetable crop. And to the rest of us, leaves are a hiding place for insects, snakes, spiders, and a covering for the ground that is free.

In the lawn, leaves should be either chopped or removed, otherwise they can potentially smother the crown of the turfgrass and kill it. In the landscape though, unless you have piled leaves upon shrubs or flowers from blowing them off the lawn, I would not recommend removing too many of them. Not even to lay down new mulch. Leaves are the ultimate mulch, which will turn into free organic matter, and they recycle the nutrients sucked up by the trees and shrubs they fell from.

leaves on the lawn at spring cleanup
Leaves on the lawn should be chopped or removed

Downed Trees in the Garden

I am not talking about the callery pear that split open in the windstorm and fell all over the landscape. Remove that during spring cleanups (or sooner). What I am talking about is dead tree limbs or trunks that fell into the woodland garden or other beds. As long as it is not crushing a valuable specimen plant or Japanese maple, then leave it. Downed limbs are gold mines of life in the garden. If left to nature, microorganisms, fungi, bacteria, beetles, and more will use it as a life source. All that life is great for the garden.

nurse trees
Nurse trees in the woods provide nutrients for all sorts of life

Invasives Hiding in the Garden

All around you are invasive, alien plants which can affect not only the overall health of the your garden, but also the health of the habitats and ecology around you. Things like callery pear, burning bush, Japanese honeysuckle, privet, Japanese barberry, and more. These are common landscape plants, and they provide no benefit to wildlife populations for sustainability.

When I start spring cleanups, I also do some in the woodlands and prairie habitats around me, clearing these weedy invasives as well. In home gardens and landscapes, I find quite a few seedlings of callery pear, burning bush, and pampas grass. These have to be yanked out before they are old enough to produce even more seeds.

If you are thinking about changing over parts of your landscape this spring, consider removing any of the following invasives and replacing them with their native counterparts on the list.

Japanese honeysuckle
Japanese honeysuckle

Invasive Alien (left) – Native Replacement (right)

Spring Cleanups and Cuttings

I generate a lot of cuttings when doing spring cleanups. Mostly, they go to a burn pile off site. Most local small towns have a public use burn pile for leaves and tree branches. But I would rather pile them together on site in either a compost bin or brush pile. Why though? What is wrong with burning them?

I was actually appalled to see someone burning leaves in town this fall. Yes, I sometimes burn leaves, but only when I am burning off the grasses and stems in my Monarch Waystation or meadow gardens. I would never rake up leaves just to burn them. Not only are you polluting the atmosphere unnecessarily, but you are wasting precious nutrients that your trees collected and used all year.

The leaves, stems, and branches you are collecting during spring cleanups are filled not only with nutrients, but hiding beneficial insects, butterfly and moth adults and larvae, and other insects which make up part of the food chain in your garden. Without those insects, birds will find it harder to raise young in the coming months, making your landscape less inviting.

burning grasses
Burning off the Monarch Waystation during Spring Cleanup


One of the least understood practices in gardening, is mulching. The landscape industry as a whole has been laying down 2 to 4 inches of mulch every 1 to 3 years for the last century in almost every landscape. That is a lot of build up of cellulose and lignin. It is difficult for microorganisms to digest and transform so much hard material into soil or organic matter before a new layer is applied.

That is one of the reasons I have switched to finer, slightly composted mulches applied at greater rates. Because the composting process has already begun, microorganisms can take over the job and finish quicker, resulting in more and better nutrient take up than possible with standard wood mulch. Also, many wood mulches are dyed, making them more resistant to decay and UV breakdown.

If you must mulch, then mix together organic mulches with chopped leaves, partially composted sawdust, chopped alfalfa, or grass clippings. Try not to use straight wood mulch by itself. The plants will reward you for your effort with increased growth and less need for added chemical fertilizers.

Fertilization and Pest Management

In our ever changing reality of garden maintenance, there are more and more pest problems that arise. You may be tempted to apply a spray all type of mindset, but this would ruin your landscape. The more chemicals you apply, especially as insecticides, the more chemicals you will need to apply. The first round of chemical treatment if usually a response to a pest outbreak, which nature has not corralled yet. Give insects time, for beneficials are slower at producing new generations. But they will eventually keep pests in check.

Sometimes, we have over bred or brought in nonnative plants that are not so invasive, but which insects love to eat. Often, our beneficials are either not prepared for this onslaught, or they are not interested in eating the pests. One example of this is Japanese beetles feeding on the myriad of hybrid roses we enjoy. The beetles love roses, but only a few predatory insects eat the beetles. The best response for this attack may be a pre-emptive strike to prevent the beetles from ever touching the rose. But at what cost does it come for other insects?

Fertilizer too, is often misused or over done. I cannot stress enough about soil testing. You need to know what you have before you add more and imbalance the soil to a breaking point. Or maybe you will just waste your time, money, and energy applying chemical fertilizers you do not need. Get a soil test and learn how to read it. Often, the best thing you can do to improve plant health, is to add compost, made from the leaves you raked off the lawn.

Assassin bugs versus Japanese beetles
Assassin bugs are one of a few natural enemies of Japanese beetles


Spring cleanups are necessary, and yet, they need not be overdone. Get a soil test. Make a brush pile. Mix mulches together. Add cuttings to the compost. Leave those leaves.

Happy planting!

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