The Washington Post

Clearing out the garden for a spring that’s already here

Gardening columnist

We are still a week away from the equinoctial start of spring, which is a bit of a joke if you look about the garden: Spring has been quietly raging for weeks. The hellebores are in full flight, the rhubarb has begun to sprout and the early daffodils are hoofing it off the stage.

Spring doesn’t so much start as gather momentum. Plants are primed to react to a strengthening sun, warming soil and longer days, phenomena that came early after winter had cut and run.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

A gardening friend said a month ago: “Spring’s here. Hey, enjoy it. What else can you do?”

Well, you could wish it would bide its time so you could get ready for it. I filled 15 large trash bags the other day, the result of a weekend spent cleaning up for the new growing season. One pays for not heeding the earliness. It is deflating to cut back an ornamental grass to find a clump of gorgeous indigo bulbous irises in clear decline.

Still, it is satisfying to clean up all of last year’s detritus before the great vernal push signaled by the cherry blossoms. The work is rewarded with the look of a garden that is agreeably blank before the party really gets going.


Grasses should be cut close to the ground; the new stems are stirring from the crown beneath. The more feeble grasses such as pennisetum, flame grass and hakone grass yield swiftly to sharp hedging shears.

The thick, stiff and almost woody big miscanthus grasses need tougher treatment. I have used pruning saws, shears and hedge clippers over the years, though I now use a powerful string trimmer. This works best if, first, you are patient. Whack a little and then retreat. Second, have an assistant clear away the detached reeds as you go so you can see what’s left.


Rosebushes have all erupted into growth, but there’s still time to give them their annual pruning. Remove thin and sickly canes and cut the keepers back to about 18 inches. Shrub or landscape roses such as Knock Out can be cut back with less finesse, using shears. Climbers can get a little grooming, but nothing too drastic, and big, old-fashioned ramblers should be pruned in June, after flowering.


The trimmer — some folks know it as a weed whacker — is useful too for making quick work of the old stems and seedheads of perennials such as coneflowers, rudbeckias and liatris, which I leave through the winter to feed the birds and catch the snow (which never came). I also wielded the machine against the lingering stems of verbena and eupatorium, though in a careless moment I removed a plump bud of a woody peony. I probably wouldn’t make it as a diamond cutter.

Trees and shrubs

What else got the chop? I discovered you can remove some of the low, wayward limbs of the Japanese cedar, using a lot of care with branch selection and a pruning saw. This reclaims real estate at the base of this big, lovely conifer without making the cedar look as if it’s raising its skirt.

I just got to the willow shrub in time. It’s named Hakuro Nishiki, and if you cut it back each winter the new growth is not only contained but pink above a green and white variegation.

Any shrub that blooms from July on is game for a haircut now without upsetting its flowering cycle, including buddleias, beautyberries and abelias.

The chaste tree, more of a lilac-size shrub, gets cut close to the ground each year, to grow to about eight feet by the time it blooms in the summer.

By the way, the key to making all this work swift and bearable is to have an assistant to gather and bag the fast-accumulating brush.

So I’m now ready for the spring that is already here. I love the spring, especially that frisson of blossoming trees and shrubs while the air is still cool and damp. But I could scream at people who think spring suddenly erupts out of thin air and is the lone climax of the year in the garden.

Each morning, the dog leads me past a neighbor’s big snowball viburnum. One of my amusements in late summer is to try to see the tiny flower buds forming where the leaves meet the stem. Over the past few weeks the buds have been swelling, imperceptibly, and in a couple of weeks they will reveal their fragrant clusters. This viburnum is not my favorite shrub, but I admire its months of preparation. It has been thinking of spring since last August. Its seven months of quiet labor is a metaphor for the process of gardening.

I have one eye on the saucer magnolia, but another on the pepper seedlings now greening the seed trays.



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