Spring cleaning? You're doing it all wrong.

What if I told you that you're throwing away hundreds of dollars of raw materials every spring and fall?

Spring is coming and it’s time to clean up your yard.  What’s that gonna take?  Remove leaves from your lawn and planting areas.  Cut down leftover perennials and ornamental grasses.   Maybe you compost this stuff, maybe it gets taken away.  In either case, the stuff gets hauled somewhere.  If there is woodchip mulch on your beds, you may need some more.  More hauling.  What’s it gonna take to get this done?  Most of a weekend?  Or if you pay a landscaper -- 3 or 4 hours for a crew of three?  Depends on the size of your yard, and how much of it is planting area.  Maybe a day.  What is that going to cost??

The Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park is one of the finest gardens in the world.  It has 2.5 acres of planted area, with perennial beds totalling over an acre.  Spring Cleanup takes one guy on a lawnmower, half a day.  And this cleanup includes the best, easiest, least expensive, most sustainable method of adding organic matter to your garden.  If you didn’t read my recent blog about soil and it’s webwork of microbial life, please do.  It ended with me promising you that method.  Here it is.  Pretty good bargain.  The very best sources of fresh organic matter for your garden are all around you.  They are the leaves from the trees and all the other stuff that landscapers and most homeowners call “debris,” and that soil scientists call “residue.”  Residue is invaluable.

Look to natural systems.  Woodlands and prairies don’t require rakes, blowers and dump trucks to manage plant residues. They recycle them on-site.  Effortlessly.  Organic matter is the lifeblood of any biotic system, ranking right up there with sunlight!  Everything should be left in place, for the microbes to convert to new life.  Garden writer Beth Botts recently posted an excellent piece from the Soil Science Society of America detailing technical aspects of this.


Plant residue makes a superior mulch because it creates an environment like the one your plants evolved in.  That’s right, your plants came to you via the good graces of evolution.  Maybe they have been selectively bred and/or hybridized to exhibit specific traits, but before that, mother nature created them.  They lived a completely sustainable existence with no inputs except air, rain and sunshine. They thrived.  And not a one of them evolved in a bed of wood chips.  A thin layer of chips is useful around your trees, as a buffer against mower damage   But in a perennial garden, they weaken your plants by holding moisture against the crowns over the winter.  This makes the crowns start to decay, and the plants go into decline.  Friends don’t let friends use wood chip mulch.  Friend.

This all means you can have a healthier landscape with less work and expense.  The soil microbes are ready to do the heavy lifting. Do not haul any organic matter off of your property.  Except wood, sometimes.  Just chop stuff up and leave it in place.  Most of this can be done with a lawnmower.  Same with leaves in your lawn.  Mow them up; if they don’t all vanish into the turf, move the excess into planting areas.  You might bag the mowed leaves to move them, or you might just use a rake. This stuff is invaluable.  Never ever throw it away.

Leave ornamental grasses and perennials standing overwinter in the garden.  They are more interesting to look at than nothing, and they often hold seeds for songbirds to eat.  They also provide refugia --nooks and crannies where all kinds of critters and their eggs can spend the winter.  Then, in late winter, when the snow is melted but the ground is still frozen, mow everything down.  The more chopped up it gets the better.  Here is what the Lurie Garden looked like the day after spring cleanup in 2015.  

At this point you might notice, that for how great all this sounds, that picture looks nothing like any yard in your neighborhood.  Look, just because your neighbors keep doing it wrong, doesn’t mean you have to.  The people at Lurie Garden do it right.  

Plants are alive.  Life is messy.  That’s part of why plants can be so beautiful. We have been trained to see a few evenly spaced sheared shrubs in a uniform bed of woodchips as desirable.  They are desirable because they are orderly.  They really aren’t that pretty.  If you prefer order to beauty, then why bother with plants?  But if you will embrace life in your landscape, plants can provide beauty that will make you just stop and wonder, day after day. 

Buzzing things, flittering things, gliding things.  I recently heard someone speak of butterflies as mobile flowers.  Your yard provides unlimited opportunities to provide habitat for life!  A lot of those opportunities involve just leaving stuff alone.  

So, after you mow it down, your landscape is not stunningly beautiful.   

But pretty soon the spring bulbs start popping,  

and then the penn sedge, birdsfoot violets and prairie smoke bloom.   

And before you know it, it’s summer!       

Ken Williams