Part 1 – Plants living in their own debris aka mulching in place

I’ve always had mixed emotions about spring clean-ups. While being extremely cathartic, albeit slightly painful and time consuming, I was always a little confused as to why I was cutting back and removing some wonderfully composted leaves and debris and then paying for and putting down mulch, which of course was what I had just removed. I was therefore thrilled that while attending the inaugural FRED seminar last year, Christine and I had a chance to speak with Roy Diblik, of Northwind Perennial Farm, the extremely knowledgeable and helpful plantsman. Among other things, he’s done work for the Lurie Gardens in Millennium Park and the modern wing of the Chicago Art Institute. Due to the scope of those gardens, we were curious as to how maintenance was performed for those gardens. Knowing that budget is always a concern, the number of manhours spent cutting back and removing debris was mind boggling. That’s when he explained the concept of plants living in their own debris. In a nutshell, mimicing nature. In gardens with just perennials, it’s possible to just run a lawn mower over the beds several times, preferably in late February or early March, and leaving the debris on the ground to turn into mulch. It leaves a different look, admittedly one that takes some getting used to, less tidy than many people like. Roy has learned to plant spring blooming bulbs in those beds to help hide the mess.

The question then became, is this concept possible in homeowner gardens where there is a mix of both woodies and perennials?  We decided to try it in my gardens and the long and short of it is yes!  Not only is it possible, it was quicker, easier and much more cost effective.  The beds that we choose normally take about 12-16 manhours for my spring clean-up.  This season took an hour and a half, and as you can see from the photos we used a mechanical hedge trimmer.    All in all, a great time was had by all!  In the future, this will be my go-to cleanup process whenever possible!  (to see year two click here.)