The Ugly Time of the Year

March is probably my least favorite month in the garden. We have endured the slow, cold, gray, constant drizzle that is the Pacific Northwest for four months and, dammit, we've earned our bountiful explosion of growth. But March isn't giving it up. In fact, it is often the cruelest month occasionally tricking us with a very late snow. I am a Big Cry Baby when it comes to March, but at least I have stuff to do. That is what we call the Great Clean Up. Actually that makes things worse, because cutting back some plants makes it appear as if I've killed them. So. There you have it, the weather plus the ugly of the freshly-cut-back sub-shrubs make for a lovely "tundra" effect. Not the best look in the garden.

My sore arms, bent back and crampy legs will tell you the snow is gone and the chores are tended to. To begin, the massive limbs that fell from the sheer weight of snow have been schlepped away along with the 4,876 pinecones. The grasses, large and small, have been cut back which took the better part of a day even with two people and a chainsaw. Did I ever say this garden is low-maintenance? Shame on me. Right now it's a gargantuan amount of work. But it will pay off come April. 

Let's go along for a look at what we've been up to this past week during the doldrum in-between time of pretty fall color, winter interest and an eventual colorful spring. 

Aah, the salvia shuffle. I have about 15 large to extremely large Salvia officinalis forms, S. o. 'Berggarten' pictured above. I have not really cut them back hard since their planting and they are letting me know it's time. Some have sprawled to easily 8' across; no kidding. While I know they might be killed by pruning too early or too hard, it was time. Either this or they are ripped out because they sprawl so much that they no longer look healthy. I did the same with all of the santolinas, artemisias, caryopteris and a couple hebes that were getting rather leggy. It felt good doing it - like cutting off an annoying pony tail - but they sure look ugly now. I know in the long run they will look much better and not split open and I'll be happier. If they don't make it, then too bad. 

Atriplex halimus gets large. Every year it gets a bit of a haircut, I'm hesitant to cut it back to a foot or two which apparently it can handle with no issues. This is as far as I wanted to go, however, because believe it or not it is a favorite of the small songbirds who live here. They love hanging out in it, sometimes dozens of them perched on the branches soaking the reflected heat from our metal siding. They also eat the leaves (they are edible, after all) and generally use it for shelter. The space between the atriplex and the Dorycnium hirsutum bottom right was exposed after pruning. The doryncium was a seedling from a parent plant and I considered moving it because it clogs up the path, but in the end we decided to leave it.

From a wider view, atriplex on the far left.

Muhlenbergia rigens or deer grass all got a haircut. While it's not necessary (they are technically evergreen), they look better with the old buff colored flowers and foliage cut out leaving fresh green spring growth. The sad little clumps of grass surrounding them are Festuca rubra 'Patrick's Point' that are, in warmer weather, blue and upright. I give them all a comb out with a metal-tined rake that takes out old dead foliage as well as rotted, matted leaves underneath.

This is a rare view as normally Miscanthus sinensis 'Cabaret' grow so large they obscure the view and path around the house. FM got out the ol' chainsaw and happily cut these guys down. The method is to wrap them with a bungee cord to keep leaf litter from flying all over the place, chainsaw underneath that and then drag it all away. Also, the Carex comans also in this bed enjoyed a comb through. I have cut these back in the past to refresh them but this year I will let them be.

Other grasses including other Carex sp., Panicum 'Heavy Metal', 'Northwind', 'Cloud Nine', Miscanthus 'Malepartus' got the chop chop. Festuca 'Beyond Blue' got the comb-through treatment. Nassella tenuissima (Mexican feather grass) got the chop and Stipa gigantea were cleaned up earlier this winter by removing the old flower stalks and combing though the basal foliage.

A few lavenders got a bit of a haircut as did Parahebe perfoliata, which could have been left alone as it's technically evergreen, but it needed to be refreshed. This is the year to refresh all of my sub shrubs, semi-woody perennials and the like.  

In addition to the sub-shrubs, I cut back deciduous perennials such as aster, rudbeckia, helianthus and agastache. I left them standing for birds to eat the seeds and now that the seeds are gone and new foliage is pushing up, it's time to clear out the old. 

In total we created four massive debris piles some 4' high and 8' wide. FM was my work horse super hero and hauled them all to the chicken yard where they will be scratched over for seeds, bugs and who knows what else. 

FM here: In years past, I would pile and burn this discarded material, but, alas, Tamara has garden'd me out of a burn place! Just as well as my luck with fire is likely thin after five years of landscaping and gardening debris. Oh, we had some fires! Sigh. So, the hens enjoy a place to play, no worries.

While the garden is in its ugly phase, there are moments of beauty here and there primarily in the form of shrubs and evergreen grasses.

This edge of the labyrinth garden was cleaned a couple of months ago and several shrubs including a ceanothus on the right were limbed up to allow for air and light to reach suffocating plants at its feet. 

Ironically, the outer edges of the garden where only the toughest plants are added is what looks the best right now. The tree on the right is staked purposely to the right and will be straighten in a few days. So says FM, who stakes things.

I am very happy I planned for winter heath. Pink is not my favorite but I enjoy it here.

The yuccas will likely need a really good pruning due to the "yucca acne" (some pathogen or another causing black spots on the leaves), but they actually look pretty good this year. Three Ceanothus 'Italian Skies' to the right were limbed up last summer for increased air circulation and light.

See - the acne is not too bad. I wonder why some years it's atrocious and this year not so much. Anyone have advice or information?

Arctostaphylos 'Sentinel' surrounded by Carex testacea, orange New Zealand sedge, a couple Hebe sp. 'Western Hills' and Teucrium chamaedrys at the upper edge of the berm garden all look fairly fresh for early March.

Speaking of arctostaphylos, the largest in the garden is 'Saint Helena' by the deck. It's finally large enough to limb up significantly to show off its beautiful trunk.

The shaggy lawn and dry garden as seen from the driveway.

Grevillea lanigera 'Coastal Gem' showing the other plants how to look good in March.

Another manzanita - Arctostaphylos 'Howard McMinn' and Buddha which we saw last time with snow up to his neck.

Just some nice winter color on Euonymus nanus var. turkestanicus in a pot on the deck. 

On those recent days when it was too miserable to work outside, the greenhouse became the place to be. Here I have all kinds of veggie seeds going.

I have also been madly potting up all sorts of treasures from the garden. I'm hoping to offer plants for sale one of these days soon! I don't know how quite yet, but the intention is there.

So why do I bother with all this clean-up, some of you might be asking. I leave as much as I can as long as I can for a place for insects to overwinter and for birds to find seeds and shelter. Once it begins to warm outside and new growth emerges it's easiest to cut them all back now. As far as the semi-woody perennials and sub-shrubs, I will say that even though I know how big plants grow and plan accordingly, they seem to outgrow the maximum size listed on the plant tag. And even with two acres I still don't seem to always allow enough room. The conclusion is some plants are becoming congested and taken over by neighbors. It was time to take serious action. I may, in the long run to decrease my work load, remove plants to allow luxurious sprawling. We'll see. 

For now, it means some maintenance up front, a lot of cutting back and making plants look awful for a few weeks but I'm confident the payoff will be big. I could just let them all get large and run into each other but it goes beyond just rubbing shoulders. Some are literally shaded out and killed. For example I found a lavender under the parahebe that I'd forgotten I'd planted. It's a goner. No light at all. Also, some plants such as the salvias could get so large and leggy that they simply split open. There is no such thing as a no-maintenance garden, after all.

What kind of spring clean up do you do in your garden? Do you have a ritual - or a least favorite time of the year? Am I alone in cringing at the mention of March? 

That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. Thank you so much for reading and commenting and wherever you are, happy gardening!


  1. Even though it may look 'ugly' the garden is tidier which I find appealing after a long winter where things start to look straggly. The hardest part of the process is our lazy muscles must once again get to work. They seem to hurt more each year.

    1. That's a good point, the straggly bits do look bad after a while. Yes, the muscles too - they hurt a little more every year indeed!

  2. March, that month when gardening spring is almost but not quite there. You’ve been very busy but tidying up now certainly pays dividends later on.

    1. Almost but not quite! Indeed. That about sums it up! You guys have been busy too - I bet you're excited for real spring as well!

  3. This wonderful blog is so inspiring. But sometimes I get just a bit discouraged comparing yours with my poor little "plot of land." So I can't tell you how happy it makes me to have you share your "uglies"! : )

    I just did a big cutting-back/cleaning-up at the end of last week. Everything is tidier now... but looks like crap! One small ray of light is seeing all the new green things poking out at the bases of established plants, the little red daggers of the peonies just coming up from the soil. A lot of things, though, still show no signs of life at all, and I need to be very patient before I label them the living or the dead. Much of my garden is slower to show than most, so I must... be... patient. Thanks, as always, for sharing, Tamara! xo

    1. Thank you Stephen for your kind words. I'm thrilled you and I can connect regarding gardening - for no matter the size of the garden, we all face the same dilemmas and challenges.

      Cleaning up is a great therapy but oh man, I hear you with the impatience waiting for green things poking out to grow. Hurry up, will ya? We're ready.

      Yes, be patient. Many plants I considered dead after the 2016/17 winter came back stronger than ever.

      xo back atchya!

  4. Your cleanup is on an entirely different scale than mine. The transition into spring is also earlier and more gradual in coastal SoCal so I handle the cleanup/pruning process in stages - and of course I don't have to deal with snow (or, unfortunately, rain as we're very dry this year). I cleaned up my Festuca californica months ago and it's already producing flower spikes. I started cutting back my larger Pennisetums weeks ago but haven't touched the smaller specimens yet. Grooming the Mexican feather grass is a quarterly exercise. I pruned my 'Wilson's Wonder' Leucadendrons this week, which was a major job.

    1. I think that's the nail on the head - the scale of the cleanup here. It all basically happens at once (or I make it that way). Your way, doing it gradually is smart.

      Leucadendron pruning? Oy vey! That sounds major. Also, how do you groom your Mexican feather grass? Combing it out or cutting it back?

  5. January is the cruelest month in my book. The holidays are over and yet there's no going out to work in the garden quite yet. I too have been in clean-up mode, including a lot of standing back and assessing things. You are way ahead of me though...which is amazing considering how much more space (and plants) you're working with! Yuccacne... I wish I knew how to avoid it. I've mostly just gotten rid of the species that get it bad.

    1. I have two points regarding your comment: One, I thought about it a while back that even though I have two acres and you have a standard city lot, we likely have the same amount of maintenance as you do an enormous amount of work moving your pots in and out of your basement and the greenhouse every year.

      Two: I hear you about January being cruel for you, it is for me too. But your garden, full of agaves and arctos, is pretty much an evergreen garden where I have a ton of deciduous shrubs and whatnot. So, in conclusion, yours looks fab all year. So there.


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