I’m sure you, like myself on warmer March days, can be found hunched over in the garden looking for signs of spring, like emerging plants. I do have quite a few early arrivals in the gardens, which only amplifies my enthusiasm for the new season. As we know, we don’t want to get too eager cutting plants down: those hollow stems are the winter homes for beneficial insects. And while we had a patch of warmer days as of late, the forecast calls for snow showers and colder nights. To take advantage of these warmer days, I shift gears a bit. We have new gardens going in and the entire space has yet to be planted. I use this time to further amend the soil. The better your soil, the more successful and enjoyable the new garden will be. I don’t walk about the garden, though, when it’s wet. The last thing I want to do is compact that loose soil.
I will begin tidying up the garden, especially along the walks, and where I see a flush of new foliage emerging. Before you shout, “It’s too early!” take note. I’m not taking a mower to the garden and chopping everything into tiny bits: old plant material and insects alike. I take inspiration from the experts at the Lurie Gardens in Chicago who share, “During the growing season, many insects use standing, spent plant stems as nesting sites, particularly the bottom 15-inches of the stem. According to insect expert, Heather Holm, “Cavity nesting insects which include most cavity-nesting bees and some solitary wasps use the hollow stems… A few bee species, including small carpenter bees and mason bees, construct their nests in pith-filled plant stems, chewing the pithy material from the center of the stem to create a nesting cavity.”
To that end, I break the plants back by hand, leaving at least 15 inches still standing, and then drop what I break into the garden. All material remains in the garden, keeping any desirable insects in place and using the old plant material as a natural mulch. And may I add, not having to crawl around and cut everything flush to the ground as old gardening rules once dictated makes gardening so much easier.
One exception to this rule: I’m cleaning out the lamb’s ears. I prefer to do this task sooner than later for it’s not my favorite gardening chore. If the foliage is dry, it breaks into particles which can get in your throat. I prefer to tidy the lamb’s ears when the foliage is damp, cutting down on plant dust. Mention of this plant brings up a final thought for the day: I embrace balance in the garden. I will add native plants liberally and I will allow non-native plants as well. I find the color and texture of the larger leaf lamb’s ear to be a valuable addition to the garden. By integrating native and non-native plants to the gardens, I show how we can embrace the plants we have known for years, while adopting a more beneficial way to garden for nature.