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Spring Clean-Up: The Most Important Landscape Maintenance Tasks for Spring

photo of spring landscape

As Spring has arrived once more, we here at Outdoor Design Group have been thinking back to a past post we published, that ruminated on the importance of the annual Spring garden clean-up. We wanted to revisit that post and make some minor updates and add some extra information.

“Spring Clean-Up” includes the spring landscape maintenance tasks that are vital for a healthy and attractive landscape, especially for Xeriscape.  This article is intended to give a simple, easy to follow guide covering the most important spring landscape maintenance tasks.

If  you read our Fall landscape maintenance tips, you know that we are not a proponents of keeping the landscape perfectly tidy over the winter.  Keeping a less tidy landscape over the winter is good for the health of the plants, and good for small wildlife like insects and birds. Now that spring is here, among other things you will need to clean your beds of those leftover leaves, and cut back your perennials and grasses.

Important Timing Dates

  • March to April: Cut back perennials and grasses. Clean up leaf litter and other debris.
  • Early May:  Time to start up that irrigation system.  Resist the temptation to start your sprinklers before May 1st.  In Colorado, we generally get plenty of moisture in March and April so lawns do not generally need supplemental water yet, and it will go to waste.  Many shrubs and perennials are only just beginning to emerge.
  • The average last frost date in the Denver area is May 5th.
  • The rule of thumb for planting new plants in the Denver area (and other Front Range communities) is to wait until Mother’s Day (middle of May) to plant new bedding plants. Consult sources such as NOAA to find the last frost date for your area.
  • If you are starting seeds indoors for warm weather vegetables, herbs or flowers, St. Patrick’s Day is a good date to do so.

Ornamental Grasses and Perennials

cut-back-sage-in-spring

Woody perennials like Russian Sage may not completely die back

  • Cut back herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses so that they will grow back bigger and better than before.  For perennials, cut them back to about 2″ to 3″ above the ground.   For woody perennials, such as some of the sages, some of the old growth will often begin to leaf out and you can leave more of the existing plant to re-grow, or you can choose to cut it all the way back to a few inches above the ground.
  • Most groundcover and other low growing  perennials usually don’t need to be “cut back” but they may need to be cleaned up, with dead areas gently raked out or trimmed off.
  • When cutting back ornamental grasses, a rule of thumb that we like to use is to cut them back to 1/5th (or 20%) of their mature height.  Feather Reed Grass, for example, grows to a height of 4-5′, so you would cut them back to 10-12″ height.

    cut-back-grasses-in-spring

    Cut grasses back to 1/5th of their full height

  • Some ornamental grasses look better if they are not cut back, namely Mexican Feather grass.  It won’t hurt the plant if you do cut it back, but the form of the plant looks better if not cut back.
  •  “Divide and conquer”!  Divide up summer and fall-blooming perennials and grasses and transplant them throughout the landscape.  This gives them time to grow this season, so that in the late summer you will have new plants to enjoy. With ornamental grasses, if the center of the plant is dead, cut this out and compost or discard.
  • Wait to divide spring blooming perennials until early fall.
  • Remove excess mulch and leaf scraps and other debris from around the bases of plants, along with any extra mulch that was placed around plants to protect them over the winter.  Spring is the wettest time of the year along the Front Range, and the mulch is needed the least at this time.  Leaving excess organic material around the bases of plants in spring can cause root rot, mold, and insect damage.
  • Consider saving any seed heads or pods from perennials you’d like to have spread around the yard. You may want to save the seeds and start them indoors in nursery pots, or you can just simply break up the seed pods and sprinkle them in the areas you might want to see new plants.

­ Planting Beds

  • Controlling weeds in bed areas is very important in the spring.  You should to get a leg up on the weeds now, while the soil is soft and easy to work with and the weeds are small.  A great time to pull weeds is when the ground is still moist from snowmelt or a spring rain. If weeds are allowed to “run wild” and set seed  throughout the spring,  you will have a maintenance headache later in the summer.  Weed control can be a quick and easy task when done correctly from the start of the year through the end.
  • For bed areas between plans that may have become uncovered during winter windstorms, add a new layer of mulch.

Vegetable Garden Beds

  • Remove old/dead plant debris from last year. Compost this debris, unless this material was diseased. Tomato plants are very susceptible to diseases so we recommend never composting them, just dispose in the trash.
  • Consider having a soil test done. Many gardeners add more nutrients (in the form of compost) every spring thinking that their soon to be planted veggies will need that extra boost; but if its not needed, it can backfire and cause problems. Ideally, vegetables and some perennials prefer soil that is 4-5% organic matter. Native plants and cacti prefer soil that is only 1-3% organic matter.
  • If you want to add compost to your beds, the best time to do so is in the fall, giving the compost time to break down and ‘mellow’.

Lawns

  • Aerate  your lawn in spring.  Aeration allows for greater movement of water, fertilizer, and air which stimulates healthy turf.  Aerating also increases the speed of decomposition of the grass clippings and enhances deep root growth.  Compacted soil especially benefits from core aerating.  Be sure to mark the locations of sprinkler heads with flags prior to aerating so that they will not get damaged.
  • It’s a good idea to rake the lawn areas once really well in the spring to clean up any leftover sticks, pine needles, etc.  In the summer we use a self-mulching lawnmower that mulches and re-deposits the clippings in place rather than bagging them.  However the first time we mow in the spring we like to attach the bagger to suck up any new clippings and other debris left over from the winter.
  • If there are bare spots in your lawn, consider broadcasting some grass seed after you have aerated, and before a forecasted snow or rain event. The cooler and wetter conditions of Spring are perfect for germinating many popular lawn grass types.
  • You may want to fertilize your lawn in the spring to give it a boost.  Don’t over do it though, because fertilizer can wash off of your lawn and the runoff can be harmful to water supplies and wildlife. Consider timing your application of fertilizer right before a spring snow, so the melting snow can help the fertilizer percolate to the root zone of the grass.
  • Remove or kill any emerging weeds, like dandelions, as soon as possible before they set seed and spread around your yard and into your neighbors’ yards.
  • Early Spring is a good time to apply a pre-emergent herbicide on your lawn to prevent crabgrass. However if you have recently applied grass seed, do not apply a pre-emergent herbicide.
  • Look at the size and shape of your lawn, and how much water you used this year in the battle with our dry climate to keep it green (or, brown?).   Consult with a landscape architect about reducing your lawn area and redesigning  your landscape to make it more attractive, sustainable, and functional.

Trees and Shrubs

  • You can now remove tree wrap from trees. If you also have tree stakes and the tree is mature enough to not need them anymore, Spring is a good time to remove the stakes.
  • For most trees and shrubs, don’t prune them in the spring.  They are budding out and are susceptible to more stress and damage at this time.  I find that it can also be difficult to tell whether a branch is dead or alive without physically checking each one, since the leaves have not yet emerged.  Wait until late summer or fall to remove any dead branches and to do any other pruning.
  • Some shrubs (butterfly bush, barberry, privet, Japanese spiraea) are best pruned in late winter or early spring. Other shrubs (lilac, forsythia, mock orange) and some trees (ornamental pear, redbud, pines and spruces) are best pruned in late spring or early summer. Generally speaking, you should not prune a plant until soon after it has flowered.
  • Trees that are considered “bleeders” (have a lot of sap) such as dogwood, elm and maple should be pruned after the leaves are fully formed.
  • But wait to prune young or newly planted trees and shrubs, until they have had some time to become established.
  • In most Spring times, there is adequate precipitation for landscape trees and shrubs. However, if it’s been a dry winter and continues to be a dry Spring, keep an eye on soil moisture around your plants. Before you start your irrigation system in May, remember to check the soil moisture, and give trees and shrubs extra water if needed.

Irrigation

  • Resist the temptation to start your irrigation system before May 1st.  After May 1st, pressurize your irrigation system and check for and leaks and for proper spray distribution.  Adjust the angle and throw of sprinkler heads.  Check irrigation equipment for clogged nozzles and sprinkler heads for damage.  Realign heads if necessary.   Examine any drip irrigation to make sure there are no leaks or other issues, and plan to make regular check-ups on your irrigation system throughout the season.
  • Stake down and cover with mulch any exposed drip irrigation lines.

Spring Weather Considerations

  • Watch for those late spring snowstorms!  Trees and shrubs that are flowering and/or leafing out can catch the heavy wet spring snow on their branches, often causing serious damage due to limbs breaking off. If you can safely do so, consider gently knocking off any accumulating snow during the wet spring snow events we typically get. This may save branches from breaking during the storm.

Other

  • Check any metal edging to make sure that it is has not heaved over the winter.  If it has popped up out of the ground, you should repair it.  Edging keeps the sod from creeping into landscape beds areas, which can be a maintenance nightmare if it gets out of hand.   Metal edging can also be a safety hazard to pets and children, if not properly seated or capped.  If you have a plastic protective cap on your edging, inspect it and replace it if necessary.
  • If you follow all of the above recommendations you will end up with a lot of organic material and cuttings as a result of your spring cleanup.  If you have the space for it, consider composting ­this material.  Or, rather than throwing the material away to go in the landfill, check to see if there is a local recycling center that will take the material to compost it.
  • If you compost at home, do not include any weed seeds. Home composting does not heat up enough to kill the weed seeds.
  • As you go about your landscape doing these Spring cleaning tasks, you will begin to accumulate quite a bit of organic material and cuttings.  Most of it is very good organic matter that is great for composting. If you have space in your yard for it, consider composting it on site. This will provide you with a free soil amendment. Another option is to take it to your local recycling center where there might be a organic matter drop off location. However you accomplish it, composting is a better option for yard debris as compared to sending it to a landfill.

Spring cleanup is a time honored tradition among gardeners, as an excuse to get outside after the long winter months and to freshen up the landscape as it springs to life.  With Xeriscape, spring maintenance is even more important.   Since Xeriscape requires less regular maintenance through the summer, it is critical to get the summer started off right so that your Xeriscape will require very little maintenance throughout the year.

Regardless of the landscape style that you are maintaining, if you start off on the right foot in the spring you will be well on your way a beautiful landscape to enjoy throughout the coming year.

This is the official blog of Outdoor Design Group, Colorado Landscape Architects.  For more information about our business and our services, click here.

 

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What Not to Do – Placing Fence Posts Within a Lawn Area

While visiting a project site last week I noticed a mistake in landscape design that I had to share:

fence post damage from weed wacker

In our landscape plans we always prefer to place fencing out of lawn areas and within landscape beds, or at least in a strip of rock.  In the photos above, these nice 6″x6″ posts are being slowly whittled away by trimmers, commonly known as “weed wackers”.

This is a condo project that was only built about 10 years ago.  I don’t blame the maintenance crews, I blame a poor landscape design.

If anything, the maintenance crews are probably cursing the landscape architect- because they have to trim around about 80 of these posts every week.

Since lawn was designed around the fence (rather than placing the fence in a strip of rock), it also gets over-sprayed by the lawn irrigation, which not only wastes water, but will quickly deteriorate a wood fence.  That’s probably why it looks like it recently had to be re-stained.

This is the official blog of Outdoor Design Group, Colorado Landscape Architects.  For more information about our business and our services, click here.

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Is Your Tree Next to Die? How Emerald Ash Borer Will Affect Our Urban Landscape, and What You Should Do About It

Green_ash_killed_by_Emerald_Ash_Borer

Green Ash tree killed by Emerald Ash Borer

2013 brought tragic news to urban tree enthusiasts in Colorado. In September 2013 the emerald ash borer was found in Boulder County. This find means that thousands of trees along Colorado’s Front Range could be decimated by this pest. And as Colorado State University Professor of Entomology Whitney Cranshaw tells us, the spread of the emerald ash borer (EAB) is dependent upon human activity. It is likely that EAB came to the United States via humans transporting contaminated wood crates from Asia, and it probably reached Colorado through contaminated firewood.

 

The emerald ash borer, Agrilus planipennis, is a beetle native to Asia. It is small, about the size of a grain of rice. Being a non-native insect in North America, it has no predators to keep its population in check. And unlike the Ash trees in Asia, our native Ash trees don’t possess the natural insecticides that control EAB. Adult borers eat leaves of Ash trees, then mate and lay eggs in crevices in the bark. The eggs hatch, releasing larvae which burrow beneath the bark, which disrupts the trees nutrient and water supplying layers. The tree becomes riddled with tunnels the larvae leave behind. The larvae then hatch in spring, burrowing their way to the surface, where they repeat the cycle of feeding on the leaves, breeding and laying eggs of new generation. They kill the canopy of the tree, limb by limb, with the entire tree dead in 3-5 years.

Adult_eab_on_a_penny

Adult EAB on a penny.

Colorado’s department of Agriculture estimates that there are 1.45 million ash trees in just the Denver Metro area alone.  The costs to spray so many trees will quickly mount.

Tree and insect experts agree that there is no point in spraying your Ash tree unless the tree is currently infested. “Since most EAB treatments provide control for one year or, at most, two years following application there is no benefit in treating a tree prior to when EAB is present”, Cranshaw writes in a recent report from Colorado State University.

In other words there is no treatment that will stop the EAB from attacking your Ash tree. Spraying before the tree is infested only wastes money and needlessly adds dangerous chemicals to the environment. In fact, many entomologists warn that even spraying an infested tree may have lethal impacts on beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies, and won’t completely rid your tree of EAB, and would probably only buy you a few extra years of life of an infested Ash tree.

If we take a serious look at the situation, spraying at all is mostly a futile and dangerous endeavor. Spraying gives tree care companies extra income but endangers the life of beneficial insects, could possibly have harmful effects on people and is very unlikely to ultimately save your Ash tree. As CSU’s Cranshaw has said, he expects in 5-10 years all Ash trees in the Metro Denver area to be infested by EAB.  Furthermore, Cranshaw writes: “Once established at a location emerald ash borer can be expected to survive in the area as long as any ash trees remain. Therefore some management of emerald ash borer will be required for as long as one wishes to maintain the tree”. It is our opinion that a better strategy to dealing with EAB is planning for the eventual replacement of your Ash tree, rather than treating your ash tree with toxic chemicals, year after year.

What can we do to slow the spread of EAB to the rest of Colorado?

1.)    Do not transport any ash wood in or out of your area.

2.)    Do not plant more Ash trees in Colorado.

If you have an Ash tree, you really should consider planting a replacement tree now. If you are unsure about what type of tree would be a good alternative to Ash, contact your local nursery, arborist, or contact us and we can help you with that decision.

This is the official blog of Outdoor Design Group, Colorado Landscape Architects.  For more information about our business and our services, click here.

 

 

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How to Tell if You Have Tall Fescue or Crabgrass in Your Lawn

Recently I had a client express frustration about his inability to kill the crabgrass weeds in his lawn.

It turns out that what he had was tall fescue rather than crabgrass.  Tall fescue is a spreading cool season grass that often appears in lawns.  It has a courser texture than bluegrass, and will sometimes “green up” in the spring earlier than the rest of the lawn.

How to Remove Tall Fescue

crabgrass vs. tall fescue closeup

Crabgrass (left) has smooth leaves that often have small hairs. Fescue (right) has ridges on the leaves.

So here’s the thing about trying to remove it:  Selective weed killers that target weeds such as crabgrass will not kill tall fescue.

The only way to remove the tall fescue is to treat it with a non-selective herbicide such as Roundup.  This type of weed killer will also kill the lawn that is directly around it.  Which means you will need to spot-seed that area, or if you have a lot of fescue you may need to remove the entire lawn and start over with seed or sod.

Should You Remove it at All?

In my lawn, I have clumps of tall fescue but I don’t like to use many chemicals on my lawn.  I just leave the clumps in place- they are hardly noticeable once the lawn greens up.

Tall Fescue in Lawn

Tall fescue emerging in a bluegrass lawn that is still dormant in early spring.

Fescues are actually pretty highly recommended as lawn grasses-  according to the Colorado State University Extension Office a fescue lawn can require up to 50% less water than a bluegrass lawn.  In fact, one of the popular sod blends we often specify for the front range is a “90/10 Fescue Bluegrass” blend.  That is, 90% fescue and 10% bluegrass.

So before deciding to use a bunch of chemicals on the fescue in your lawn, or doing a major lawn renovation – consider leaving it in place.  The fescue can be hardly visible at all from a distance, and may end up saving you money in the long term on watering.

This is the official blog of Outdoor Design Group, Colorado Landscape Architects.  For more information about our business and our services, click here.

 

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The 7 Principles of Xeriscape, Revisited 30 Years Later

By now most people in the western U.S. are familiar enough with Xeriscape to know that there is indeed no “zero” in the pronunciation (it’s pronounced more like zeer-escape).  The term Xeriscape 7 Principleswas coined by the Denver Water Department in 1981, are derived from the Greek word “xeros”, meaning dry.

There are 7 principles that make up the concept of Xeriscape:  planning and design, improving the soil, creating practical turf areas, irrigating efficiently, proper plant selection, using mulch, and maintaining the landscape.

While I am not sure EXACTLY when the 7 principles were first released (my guess is a few years after the term Xeriscape was first used), I have often wondered whether an update was needed, or if the same 7 principles would be adopted exactly the same today.

While today Xeriscape remains as relevant as ever, there are some important observations I have made through experience regarding the 7 principles, common misconceptions about them, and how they relate to landscaping in today’s rapidly changing world.  Therefore, I thought it might be helpful to revisit and add updates to the original 7 principles:

Principle #1: Planning & Design

Updates:  Planning and design is as important today as ever.  Landscapes continue to get more complex as dozens of new plant choices are introduced each year, along with advances in irrigation systems and controllers.  The more complex a project gets, the more benefit is gained from careful planning and design.

Another important development has been the landscape architecture license act of 2007, when Colorado joined the rest of the country in requiring that landscape architects be licensed, and that all commercial and large residential projects (greater than 4 units) have landscape plans that have been prepared by a licensed landscape architect.  While this may have raised the cost of design somewhat, a good efficient design will always pay for itself by minimizing surprises during construction, allowing plans to be competitively bid, and lowering maintenance costs over time.

Misconceptions:  Xeriscape can only be done in one style.  A design will make the project cost more.

Principle #2: Soil Improvements

Updates:  This is one area that needs to be looked at closer.  The intention of this principle should be to “analyze and improve soil when needed, depending on what plantings are proposed”.  The problem has been that many cities and municipalities started to require that all landscaped areas have large amounts of amendment incorporated into the soil over the entire landscaped area, and even requiring dump tickets from the contractors to prove that the amendments were placed.

While this is a good idea for bluegrass and for some types of plants, there are many other plants were the amendment is detrimental to plant health.  Many of the very xeric and native plants prefer the native, rockier soil, and can suffer from root rot if soil is heavily amended with organics.  I personally think that the amendment should only be tilled into new bluegrass areas, and in the individual planting backfill of those plants that will benefit from it.

Misconceptions:  All plants require soil improvements.

Principle #3: Practical Turf Areas

Updates:  I am not sure whether the original principle read “Practical Turf Areas” or “Practical Bluegrass Sod Areas”.  One of the trends I am seeing that we are starting to use in our designs is the creation of “turf” areas from groundcovers and/or spreading perennials and shrubs.  The questions that one needs to ask is not only where will the lawn areas be, but does an area really need to be a “lawn” at all?

Many of the bluegrass turf alternatives are very difficult and sometimes expensive to get established.  If an area of the landscape will not be used for games and high foot traffic, then why substitute a hard-to-grow lawn alternative for bluegrass when there are many good spreading plants that are easy to grow?  In other words, if a “turf” area will not be used, it simply becomes a low growing visual element, in which case many planting alternatives should be explored.

Misconceptions:  Xeriscape means no grass, and bluegrass turf cannot be used in a Xeriscape.

Principle #4: Efficient Irrigation

Updates:  Many advancements in irrigation have been made in the past several years, making it possible to irrigate even more efficiently.  However, many of these benefits have been over-hyped.  While I am all for making our irrigation systems more efficient, this approach does not address the underlying issue- how much water does my landscape REQUIRE to remain healthy?  Only by installing water efficient landscapes will any major impact be made.

Misconceptions:  If one installs new irrigation heads and a smart controller, the amount of water they will need to use will go down significantly.

Principle #5: Proper Plant Selection

Updates:  This principle goes hand-in-hand with a good design.  One of the overlooked aspects of this principle is a phenomenon known as “micro-climates”.  Microclimates are small climate differences that occur in the landscape due to sun vs. shade relationships, water availability and retention, wind, soil differences, etc.  Every day in this business I am reminded how plant selection is impacted by these micro-climates.

One area of debate is the natives vs. non-natives argument.  I am firmly in the non-natives camp.  There are some amazing native plants that I love to use, but there are also many non-natives discovered every year that meet the needs of our varying miro-climates.

Misconceptions:  Only native plants are appropriate to use.

Principle #6: Mulching

Updates:  The biggest problem I see with this principle is that all mulches are not created equal.  There are cost, aesthetic, and weight differences between wood mulch and rock mulch.  Not all plants like being heavily mulched, and some prefer rock mulch over wood mulch, for many of the same reasons some plants do not like a lot of soil amendment.  As a result, wood mulch seems to be getting a bad name for Xeriscapes.  I have even seen some cities write into code that wood mulch cannot be used for a low water-use zone.  But wood is often quite a bit less expensive than rock mulch, and is WAY easier to move around, plant in, and make adjustment to than rock.

The bottom line on mulching-  there are different rules to follow based on the type of mulch you are using.  If you use wood mulch, use a thin layer and be sure not to over-water.  If you use rock, remember that it will be difficult to add plants later or make changes to rocked areas.  Also, keep in mid the aesthetics- I feel that too much rock can make a landscape seem a little too harsh, and but having a combination of mulch types can help to visually break up large areas.

Misconceptions:  All mulch is the same, all plants love being mulched.

Principle #7: Maintenance

Updates:  This is the most undervalued principle.  For every 10 beautiful landscapes that I have designed and enjoy visiting time and again, there is at least one commercial landscape where even the most basic maintenance has been neglected.  Shrubs have been sheared off into little balls right before they were about to flower, weeds have overtaken a bed area, plants have been over-watered to death.

The biggest piece of advice I can give to property owners or managers is this:  walk your landscape once in a while, and make maintenance adjustments based on what you see.  Remember that plants are living things, and your job is to understand what will allow each plant to flourish naturally, with the least amount of interference (such as over-watering, over-pruning, etc.) while at the same time minimizing negative factors such as pests, weeds, etc.

Misconceptions:  All plants like more water, all shrubs need to be pruned, all plants have similar needs.

 This is the official blog of Outdoor Design Group, Colorado Landscape Architects.  For more information about our business and our services, click here.

 

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