I will also say that a garden does not have to be weed-infested or poorly designed to be ugly at certain times of the year. Case in point: My own front yard garden, shown in these pre-spring-cleanup photos that were taken this evening:
Two views: From the top of my steps (above)
and from my driveway looking toward the steps (below)
I am pretty sure that the current state of my front yard garden horrifies at least a couple of my neighbors. One couple has gorgeous traditional borders, but admits that naturalistic gardens are not their thing and that they don't much care for grasses at all. Another neighbor, Ms Type A Personality, whips out the Roundup at the slightest hint of renegade greenery, and keeps things neat as a pin in the block-lined beds near her porch.
Unstated, though understood, is that my yard feels a little TOO messy to all of them. I like all three of these neighbors, for the record, but this is the only time of the year when I agree with them in regards to my exhuberant front yard garden!
So why do I let my garden get to this state? Several reasons. First and foremost, saving all of this cleanup work until the spring saves me from my own enthusiasm. It's still March--in Cleveland--for heaven's sake! I have no business doing much of anything outdoors besides some late winter pruning, and planting the earliest of edible crops. But if I didn't have spring cleanup chores left to do, I would most certainly be outside anyway... getting myself and my garden into trouble.
Second, this garden IS my front yard, which means that fall cleanup would leave a boring, barren landscape for me to view during a long Northeast Ohio winter. Perennial skeletons poke up out of the snow and make interesting mound designs in the white stuff. Buff-colored grasses add some height and movement (it's very windy here) and even provide a nice complement to some of my early flowers like the 'Ivory Prince' hellebores shown above.
Thirdly, plant detrius helps me to overwinter some marginal plants here in the front yard. Unfortunately, this is NOT the year that my 'Black & Blue' salvia finally, miraculously overwinters (boo!) but various grasses--like the carex albula 'Frosty Curls' shown above, and nasella (aka stipa) tenuissima--regularly come back for me each spring if I leave them alone in the fall. And in 2008 I lost one of my caryopteris by cutting it back too early in the year.
Last, but not least, I might miss out on a few miracles of spring if I wasn't out in the yard doing cleanup. The feeling of elation at picking up a mat of wet oak leaves and finding my little species tulips peaking through the ground is something I would hate to miss. So is seeing the otherworldly, deep purple sprouts of sea kale.
And if I hadn't been out working in the yard this evening, I would never have noticed the first official front yard blooms of 2010, shown above. 'Purple Dragon' lamium fills up the circular bed that showcases a cutleaf Japanese maple... but the delicate blooms on this branch were on the side facing my neighbor's house, and so they would have escaped my notice entirely.
So for all of these reasons, I embrace having an "ugly garden" throughout the month of March. And as I dirty my fingernails and grimace at the squish of decaying leaves between my fingertips and palms, I look at my ugly garden and smile... knowing that come summer, it will be beautiful and exhuberant once again.