By Sean Conway

The best way to keep a good garden is to anticipate seasonal work and stay ahead of it. It is all about timing, really, and starting early keeps me from playing catch-up later in the season. Staying ahead of garden chores means making lists and prioritizing.

It also means paying close attention to the weather. In my zone 6 garden, the ground has thawed and the soil is soft from the abundance of spring rain. Walking in a garden when the ground is soft and wet is detrimental to the soil. In early spring, wet soil compacts easily, depleting it of oxygen. Once it is compacted, water does not pass through soil as easily, and neither will roots later in the season. A stretch of dry sunny weather will be needed before I can work on my borders, but when it comes, I'll be watching for it. Until then I'll stay off any wet garden soil.

In the mean time there are a lot of other jobs that can be done before spring is really under way. March is when I do all of my coppicing. For those who don't take advantage of this time-honored horticultural practice, you are missing out on a great renewable resource. Coppicing is the practice of cutting woody plants back to the ground every spring.

Traditionally done with fast-growing shrubs like willows, the practice began in Europe as a way to create firewood in areas devoid of trees, and later to grow material for making woven baskets.

Every spring I coppice several different types of willows in my garden. Willows grow quickly and if not cut back regularly will overtake a garden. Coppicing them annually allows me the opportunity to grow many of the ornamental types right in the border, such as the pink-tipped variety 'hakuro nishiki' and the beautiful narrow-leaved rosemary willow.

Most types of willows will produce long slender "whips" each year after the shrub has been cut back. Some of these whips can be as long as 6 to 8 feet in length, depending on the type of willow. Once cut, these long thin branches are very useful in the garden.

I cut the shrubs back before the leaves appear each spring and wrap the whips in bundles with twine. These bundles make the perfect support for climbing peas in the vegetable garden, or for supporting floppy perennials in the border. Their natural look is unobtrusive and once plants begin to grow over them they become virtually invisible in the garden.

A few weeks ago, an editor from a national magazine called asking me if she could do a feature story on my garden later this season. There is nothing like having company over to get one's house in order, and a garden is no exception! This spring I am going to have to pay close attention to my garden chore list so I'm not behind the eight ball when the photographer arrives.


Sean Conway's book is "Sean Conway's Cultivating Life: 125 Projects for Backyard Living" (Artisan Books, 2009), describes 125 projects for backyard living.


Available at

Cut Your Energy Bills Now: 150 Smart Ways to Save Money & Make Your Home More Comfortable & Green

It's Easy Being Green: A Handbook for Earth-Friendly Living

Sean Conway's Cultivating Life: 125 Projects for Backyard Living


Copyright ©, Cultivating Life by Sean Conway





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