Down to Earth

Heady spring days, when everything is possible


My garden this very minute, as it wakes up, is at its best. You might take one look, see winter’s debris still strewn about and not much in bloom and wonder if I’ve lost my marbles. Beauty is in the mind’s eye of the beholder. Today my garden is all about potential. It has never been a prettier tapestry, more elegant, richly colorful, or lively than it will be this season. Right now it looks doable too. Totally manageable. There isn’t too much of anything. Nothing is crowded, stressed, or unhealthy. Even the weeds are kind of cute.

There are a number of reasons why I let the garden stand through winter rather than putting it “to bed” in the fall, including winter interest, seedheads and habitat for the critters, laziness….But number one is that spring cleaning is my favorite chore. Clearing last year’s clutter gives me the excuse to get reacquainted. My memory is terrible (have we met?) and I didn’t take any good pictures, so the only way I remember what I’ve got is to get down on hands and knees to poke around with snips and fingers.

Identification in the sprouting stage is challenging. Is it a weed or is it a wanted plant? What plant? Rudbeckia or echinacea? Phlox or asclepias? I like to think garden variety brainteasers get me off the hook for not doing daily crosswords. And it’s the sprouting stage that gives me a false sense of security and space. If I didn’t have to clear away last year’s stems I might forget that Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ is anything but low. As it happens, a twelve inch wide crown of nepeta is about eight inches wider than it should be if I want to have anything else along my little garden’s edges come June. Division is the better part of valor.

Division at this early-spring stage is a piece of cake unless we’re talking about deeply rooted bruisers like amsonia and baptisia. I hope never to have to divide or move those. But if you do have to, split them now too before they grow legs — or better yet wait until fall, which is a kinder time to interfere with early bloomers. Shallow rooted perennials like nepeta, alchemilla, and lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) can be teased apart with your fingers. Other plants’ root systems, baptisia’s for one, hosta’s for another, can handle the brutality of a sharp spade. Pry fibrous clumps apart by inserting two digging forks back to back, just like portioning angel food cake. No matter how abusive the method seems, once replanted and watered in, your perennials will take off again as if you did them a favor. Which, of course, is true.

I would be wise to edit my favorite rhizomatous spreaders now too while it still looks like they’re not taking up more room than they should. Looks are deceiving. Anything in the mint family, such as beebalm, oregano, mountain mint (Pycnanthemum spp.), and the various mint-mints should be smallerized annually — easily accomplished using a sharp spade to slice the connections between clumps and satellites. Some will require beast reduction surgery again a few more times before growth slows down midsummer. Fine by me. Too much mint is the best excuse we ever get to make a round of mojitos or a pitcher of iced tea.

I know I have said I love fall and it’s true. Fall is when I finally relax and enjoy the garden as it really, truly, and wonkily is. But I can’t help loving spring more. The first days in particular top the charts because everything is still possible, and I have all the energy I need — and then some — to participate in the season’s potential perfection.

Kristin Green is the horticulturist at Mount Hope Farm and author of 'Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter'. Follow her blog at

Kristin Green


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