Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

Garden Diary: late winter cleanup

February 26, 2017

This was the front garden on January 23. It lasted well into winter.

But old growth must make way for the new, so last week my garden helper and I began cutting and burning in the back, and largest, part of the garden. This week we started with the front garden.

Cutting and burning takes careful planning. Grasses must be cut and moved if too near shrubs, under tree canopies, or too near the property line, so the two of us do a kind of dance–cutting, moving, mounding, and burning.

The largest, highest flames last only 15 or 20 seconds, then quickly die down to a more controlled burn.

A full-flowing hose is always ready to extinguish any errant flame, which likes to creep outward, burning the leaf cover.

After an area is burned, I wet it thoroughly with water, rest, and move on to another part of the garden.

Later we’ll use a weed trimmer to chop any remaining large pieces, sweep the paths and paved areas, then wait for the rains of spring to wash the charred matter into the soil. The fire opens the earth a bit, so I often do some seeding now (in addition to seed I broadcast in the autumn).

The black remnants of fire absorb heat from the sun and stimulate new growth as the weather warms.

One part of the cleanup, cutting the tall perennials that won’t burn, is usually the last task.

New growth will begin to show almost immediately if we don’t have freezing cold for long periods.  By April the ground cover layers will have emerged, and by mid-May the garden will be green again.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathy February 27, 2017 at 10:48 am

Wow! That’s one way to clean up. I love it! I love that it warms/feeds the soil, that you have plant layers that grow back in stages, and that you can sow seeds into the mix as well. I am truly impressed!

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James Golden March 1, 2017 at 11:41 am

I do wish I could simplify and speed up the process. Buying equipment to mow and shred, and eliminating most burning, would be a way to go. But I don’t interact well with internal combustion engines.

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Nell February 27, 2017 at 11:13 am

I love seeing the process. Because so few plants in your garden are early spring do-ers, it seems much less affected than most by the unseasonable warmth that’s swept the east for the last few weeks. Here a few unusually eager peonies had their tips burned by last night’s hard freeze.

The recent steady winds having died down to nothing, with rain coming in tomorrow, today’s the day for tackling the 20-year-old clumps of Miscanthus ‘Silberfeder’ in the border. It’s mighty tempting to try burning them, but my partner’s out of town, and the downside’s too great to risk it, even with a hose at hand.

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James Golden March 1, 2017 at 11:44 am

One reason I’m doing is now, earlier than usual, is the warm weather we are having. Bulbs and other things are beginning to emerge, so time is of the essence. I appreciate your concern about not burning along, especially Miscanthus, which makes a tremendous flame, though a brief one. I’d love to see your garden some time.

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Nell March 1, 2017 at 2:17 pm

Maybe this season I’ll re-start my blog, as a garden blog only. (Previous ratio of posts roughly 50:1 grim political/human rights : gardening.) Even if just to document the planting areas month by month. Definitely not taking any pictures until the grasses are down, though!

Speaking of which, Rhone Street Garden did a truly satisfying end-of-2016 review of the hellstrip garden in each month; I recommend it to all who enjoy the dynamics of perennials, but especially those of you craving a bit more green right now: http://www.rhonestreetgardens.com/2016/12/a-garden-throughout-year-2016.html

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Janna Schreier February 27, 2017 at 4:26 pm

It’s quite dramatic! One question, do you not have a problem with alkalinity after several years of this process? Or perhaps the matter you are burning is not woody enough to have much effect?
I’m so craving the beautiful green of the last photo now!

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James Golden March 1, 2017 at 11:45 am

My soil is quite acid, so I haven’t even thought to test it. But I don’t think alkalinity is likely ever to be a problem here.

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Eric S March 4, 2017 at 10:30 pm

Can you tell us what types of seed you are sowing post burn?

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James Golden March 8, 2017 at 9:52 am

Eric, I don’t really sow, except in special circumstances. In the dryer ground by the house, I intend to prepare the soil a bit and plant Oenothera odorata ‘Apricot Delight’, which I saw in many gardens in The Netherlands last summer. It’s a beautiful plant, especially just as the flowers are wilting. In the larger, and wetter part of the garden, I’ve already broadcast seed of Lobelia siphilitica, Gentiana andrewsii, Gaura longiflora, and seed of various Ligularias I grow. I have a few other things to try, but I admit I’ll be surprised if any of them succeed: Mitella diphylla, Asclepias incarnata, Epilobium angustifolium album, Althea cannabina, Calamagrostis x Korea, Succisella inflexa ‘Frosted Pearls’, Verbena hastata, and Datisca cannabina. Some of these are precious (sent by friends from far places) and I’ll take some care with preparation, others I’ll just broadcast and hope for the best. My conditions are difficult, so I experiment and let chance and the weather (and other uncontrolled conditions) determine what happens. This is all in the hope of gradually finding more plants that can thrive in my difficult conditions and give me more diversity.

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