Down to earth: It’s time to make mulch of winter

Down to earth: It’s time to make mulch of winter

"Fairy Wings," one of the many aliases of this early spring bloom.

"Fairy Wings," one of the many aliases of this early spring bloom.
“Fairy Wings,” one of the many aliases of this early spring bloom.
I’m always a little nervous before cutting the garden back in spring. I worry about exposing delicate and tender new growth to this diabolical season that’s likely to shift within a day from mild and lovely to frigid and nasty. After all, “April is the cruelest month”, according to T.S. Eliot and most gardeners I know. But despite the yo-yoing, or maybe because of it, plants are indeed starting to grow. And tidying winter away so they can get on with it is much more easily done now, before that tender new growth has stretched so much it gets in the way of our snips.
I’d especially hate to decapitate any new growth on Epimedium spp., also commonly known as barrenwort (a terrible name), horny goat weed (a hilarious name), or fairy wings (the perfect name) because right about now, flower buds are emerging from under the soil. They’re almost cuter than tiny baby toes and will start blooming in just a few weeks. The flowers, which come in a collector’s range of incandescent colors (pinks and deep pinks, yellows, white, orange and bicolors) and sizes (pinky to toenail) are shaped like court jester hats and shiver in the barest breeze like excited Jack Russell puppies.
By the time those fairy wings open, new foliage will have also emerged on wiry stems, mostly not much more than a foot tall. The leaves waggle like eye-lash edged, heart-shaped pennants and usually start out bronzy purple or camouflage green and change as they grow into various calico patterns. Some leaves are speckled red, others edged in red. Some become a simple green-green. All toughen up over the summer, and most hang on well into winter. By now though whatever foliage is left has lost its appeal, looking an awful lot like a pile of crumpled paper bags, and signaling to the gardener that it’s high time for cut backs.
Most perennials and some shrubs can be whacked back to the ground and tidied up now (I am even taking my chances cutting down stems from the most marginally-hardy species), so make sure you have room for all that debris in the compost. I, unfortunately, do not. My compost area is currently under re-construction due to a nasty infestation of bittersweet roots so I’m trying something new: composting in place. And now I’m not sure why I never did it before. It solves two of my biggest problems: Even when my compost area is usable, spring clean-up fills it. And I’m perennially in need of a layer of mulch on the beds to suppress weeds, add organic matter, and hold moisture in the soil.
Composting in place always sounded like too much work to me. It turns out that the persnickety-ness of chopping and breaking the debris into bite-sized chunks is a lot easier than hauling wheelbarrows-full of it away. The downside, and why I can’t imagine many of you will try this at home, is that my spring garden is decidedly less tidy looking after spreading bits and twigs over every bare patch of ground. Even I prefer the look of raked beds and starting spring with a clean slate. Instead, I am making sure as I work through my garden that any matted leaves left over from fall’s fall aren’t hindering new growth, and praying that my plants will grow quickly to hide the mess I’ve left.
I’m convinced, now that I’ve done some of my cut backs, that spring really is in the air and in the soil. The season only feels late because we’re comparing it to last year (and we’re tired of snowy forecasts). In fact, the garden is growing right on time. So there’s no good reason anymore not to get out there and help it along.

Kristin Green is the interpretive horticulturist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum in Bristol, where she’s worked since 2003. Follow her garden blog at