Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Spring Cleanup or "Dang, my back hurts...."

Spring cleanup in the landscape can be a tedious chore as we work to remove the previous season's growth in an effort to make things more presentable for the coming growing season. I can't help but think that our human desire for the neat and tidy makes this job harder than it should be. If we could just relax a little, the chore might not be as hard and the ecological benefits could be greatly increased.

A prairie-themed landscape bed at the Waverly Intermediate School - before cleanup.
Something that's always bothered me is how we tend to haul away so much of the spent herbaceous material that we cut down. Putting it in a compost bin is one thing, but hauling it to a landfill is clearly working against natural processes that would normally break the material down and return its minerals and other elements back to the soil right where it grew. We've also learned that many important insects are overwintering as eggs or other forms in this material and we are effectively hauling them away as well. Not good.

In an effort to be more ecologically responsible, build the soil, reduce energy inputs, aid insects and mostly reduce some of the hard work, I like to try and leave as much of last year's perennial material in place as I clean up. It would be nice to use fire to burn the matter back and break it down quickly, but since that is rarely possible in a community setting, I try to do the next best thing and shred it down as fine as possible. My tools of choice include a mower, an industrial wheeled string trimmer and a hand held string trimmer often fitted with a steel blade.

After my patented "three step" cleanup method.
For prairie themed gardens that might include many thick or stringy stems prairie grasses and other robust plants, I often start with the bladed trimmer to knock things down. I then go over the entire area with the wheeled trimmer to shred and shorten the stems enough that they'll fit under a mower. I then go over the area with a mulching mower to reduce the debris even further. This typically leaves the planting area with a one to two inch layer of chopped herbaceous mulch that breaks down fairly quickly over the coming summer.

Tools of choice.
This kind of maintenance doesn't leave the perfectly tidy look that most people prefer, but I've figured out over the years that once things start growing again in earnest, its really hard to tell the difference from more manicured landscapes. Short of using fire or grazing animals, this is the next best thing to mimicking the natural process of Mother Nature that I have found. I do hope that some day someone will invent the "Brush Gorilla 2000" - an all-in-one robotic machine that I can turn loose on a planting and it watch it do all the work while I watch the ball game and drink a cold beer. On second thought, maybe that's not a good idea.

Justin Evertson


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