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Spring Clean-Up

            Lately I have been reminded of the classic German chorale melody that organists know as “Schmuecke Dich”.  Johann Crueger composed it in 1649, and in some Christian hymnals the first line of the hymn sung to the old melody is “Deck thyself my soul with gladness.”

            When I go outside to do spring clean up in my garden beds I feel as if my soul is decked with gladness.  That gladness is tempered, however, by the time constraints that always seem to dog me.  Still, life is what it is, and I am comforted by the knowledge that most other gardeners have the same plethora of obligations.  Some people have to work overtime, or do their taxes.  Others have to walk the dog at the end of the day or change the catbox, fold the laundry or feed the children.  Then there is community service, visiting relatives and exercising.  It is hard for even the most ingenious gardener to do any or all these things and work in the garden at the same time.

            The first rule of successful gardening, and anything else is, “You gotta wanna.”  That means that gardening has to be valuable enough to you to warrant expenditure of precious time.  Finding that precious time is the next hurdle, and it is frustrating. 

            If all things were equal, I would spend at least two hours every day on garden-related chores.  At this time of year those chores include outdoor work plus seed starting, watering the seedlings and cleaning off the tools.

            Needless to say, all things are not equal.  Since I love gardening, I make it a rule to steal 15 minutes a day, every day, for it.  Right now I alternate seed starting with yard work.

            You can get a lot done in 15 or 20 stolen minutes if your tools are easy to locate.  If they are not easy to locate, spend your first 20 minute time increment getting them together and depositing them in a convenient place.

            If your clippers are in one hand and some kind of receptacle is in your other hand, you can cut down and clear away a lot of dead stalks (from last year’s annuals and perennials) in the allotted time.  Save three minutes at the end to deposit the dead plant material on your compost pile, or, if you must, in a bag by the curb.

            In fifteen minutes you can also rake all the dead leaves out of one or two medium-size beds.  Doing this will allow you to discover the inspiring fact that some of your perennials are already putting forth new leaves.  When I raked my back garden I noticed that my cranesbills and marsh mallows (Hibiscus moscheutos) had come through the winter unscathed.  The masses of self-sown larkspur seedlings emerged looking much as they did last fall.  There’s no doubt about it, raking can renew your faith.

            It’s comforting to know that this is not the correct time to prune spring flowering shrubs (wait until after they have bloomed).  Other shrubs can benefit greatly from a fifteen-minute haircut.  Butterfly bushes and other deciduous shrubs frequently look absolutely dead about this time.  Don’t worry, most of them are alive and well.  If you have doubts, wait a few weeks.  The majority of those “dead” branches will be sprouting leaves like crazy.  The rest can be trimmed with impunity.

            All of you garden perfectionists have to remember that neither Rome nor Sissinghurst nor the New York Botanical Garden was built in a day.  To my way of thinking, the most dangerous words that a gardener can utter at this time of year are, “I’ve got to get started.”

            Don’t sit there whining and feeling guilty.  Take fifteen minutes and actually get started.  Gardening is, after all, a love affair; and, as with all love affairs, the stolen moments are the sweetest. 



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