Every four years we are blessed (hopefully not cursed) with an extra day. It’s leap year and the month won’t end until midnight Saturday. What will  you do with the extra day?

Me, I will probably finish cleaning out my mixed borders that are already providing the earliest color of the season with snowdrops, crocuses, hellebores and a few other things, including winter foliage on some woodies. 

Yes, my borders are mixed, with those woody shrubs, perennials, annuals, bulbs, ornamental grasses, and even some small trees that contribute to a long season of attraction. It has taken years of change, winnowing out, editing and moving things around to this point, and the work is never done. I already sense there will be some gaps come hot weather where something or other has failed. 

I take the cleanup piecemeal, as opposed to a severe clean sweep once killing frosts occur in late autumn. Some gardeners prefer the latter process, followed with a neat layer of brown mulch.

First things to go, in November, are those that fall apart first, i.e. some perennials and hot weather annuals. Then I attend to any woody things that go from good to bad as soon as leaves fall. For instance, there are a couple of hardwooded hydrangeas (of the species paniculata) whose once-white heads turn brown. 

This past fall I cheated with them and sprayed their brown heads red with spray paint. Everybody wondered how I got them to turn that color. They stayed red until winter weather flailed them asunder. 

Sturdier perennials (i.e. sedums and kinds that offer attractive seedheads) are next to be guillotined, in fact, not until, say, early February, by which time the earliest bulbous plants are beginning to show their colors, necessitating removal of all that remains of last year’s border, leaving it clean as possible so that the bulb flowers are not obscured. Then too, there are a few early shrubs that are already getting into bloom, and they must be featured. One of the most notable of these is a spirea, ‘Ogon,’ that offers tiny white flowers very early and then morphs into a crop of nice yellow foliage for the rest of the season.

The last to go are ornamental grasses, and they present a problem, if indeed it is one. Some of them remain attractive right until new growth starts. 

Others, I have found, resent cutting back until later in spring. So they stay until those aforementioned bulbs start to put on a show. The borders are full of them and without their presence late winter and early spring would be drab indeed. 

I have not found the bulbs growing among the other ingredients to be a problem. In fact, when I plant new bulbs, I snuggle them up among late sprouting perennials. Hostas are excellent for this role, with their leaves obscuring the ripening foliage of the bulbs and contributing their own value until late fall. Most any perennials with burgeoning foliage can play this role.


JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.

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