Chop-and-drop cleanup is good for the garden and gardener

Erin Schanen


Old garden habits die hard. After being trained to clean up the garden in spring to nearly bare ground and then cover that bare ground with bags of wood chips probably from several states away, the evolution of this gardener continues.

I spent the first glorious weekend of spring doing some garden cleanup, starting with the new garden I created last year. The whole approach with this new area has been more naturalistic than any other place in my garden. Both the plants and the planting plan have a more natural feel and so, too, does the spring care regimen.

The plan here is to never remove plant material from the area. Rather, it will be chopped off and left to lay around the plants, creating their own mulch. This is hardly innovative thinking on my part. Pioneers of the naturalistic planting style such as Piet Oudolf, Noel Kingsbury and Wisconsin’s own Roy Diblik have advocated this style of maintenance for years, and frankly, Mother Nature has been doing it all along. After all, no one rakes the leaves off the forest floor.

Large gardens, such as the Lurie Garden in Chicago, are actually mowed with a mulching, brush cutting mower. I was a little afraid that such treatment might be a bit aggressive for relatively new plantings, so I just went after everything with the shears, chopping all the dead plant material two or three times and letting it lay.

Even with all that chopping, it was the easiest cleanup I’ve ever done. It turns out that the onerous part of cleanup is not the chopping, but the endless wheelbarrow trips to the compost.

And there were benefits of all that chopping, other than it being the best arm workout I’ve had in a while, which says more about my lax winter fitness routine than it does about gardening. While I was up close and personal with all those plants, I saw things I usually miss. The lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) is already pushing out tiny, pleated new leaves. Given that only about the top four inches of soil is thawed, this amazed me. The bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum) seems to have never missed a beat, looking almost as good as it did in autumn. And the tiny shoots of fall-planted bulbs are emerging everywhere.

I used the same approach in a nearby bed populated by Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra). These more mature plants produced a lot more detritus, and I’ll admit it took a lot of willpower to not bring out the rake to neaten things up. It looks messy and is unlikely to look better until new growth comes in.

That’s why I’ll continue to remove the old stems and top growth in areas of the garden that we look at every day. I no longer rake out all the leaves, but leaving old plants behind is going to take some getting used to.

Perhaps, in time, I’ll move to the chop-it-and-drop-it school of garden cleanup for all my gardens. If that happens, it will probably have more to do with making less work in the garden than the ecological benefits, but either way it sounds like a win.



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