2006 Tips Archive
Clean Up in the Fall Garden
Like many landscape maintenance issues, the question "Should I cut back my perennial plants in the fall?" is not always answered adequately with a simple "Yes" Or "No".
Reasons for cutting down and removing "old" foliage, flower stalks and seed heads before winter are basically related to garden hygiene and personal style.
By removing dead or dying foliage you eliminate disease pathogens, spores and hiding places for insect pests or their eggs and larvae to over winter. You may also inhibit the spread of certain potentially aggressive ornamentals, especially those that self-sow prolifically.
Personal style enters into the question if you simply won't feel comfortable if your whole garden is not neatly 'cleaned up' and 'put to bed' for the winter. In cleaning up and cutting back old growth you also expose weeds and their seedlings, hiding in, under and among perennials and every weedling removed now inhibits their early establishment and spread in spring.
What then are the reasons for not simply taking a power weed trimmer to all your perennial plants come November?
First, many perennial plants, ground covers and some grasses are "evergreen" or "semi-woody evergreen" and cutting these back may stimulate new tender growth in fall that will be damaged in winter or expose the plant's crown, that is usually protected by it's foliage, to killing temperatures. Examples of plants that should not be cut back 'hard' in fall include Iberis (Candytuft), Heuchera (Coral Bells), Liriope (Lilyturf), Ajuga and Blue Fescue Grass. "Woody" perennials like Lavender, Caryopteris, Santolina and Russian Sage may all be damaged by too aggressive pruning in fall.
A second reason to delay cutting back certain plants until spring lies again in the preference or style of the gardener. "Beauty is in the eye of the pruner" and many think that the dried foliage and seed heads of many ornamental grasses and other perennials add beauty and interest to a winter landscape. It's up to you to decide if you enjoy the look of dried Sedum, Siberian Iris or Yarrow seed heads, or Miscanthus grasses foliage and 'flowers' emerging through the snow.
Finally, you may wish to leave some plants standing to provide a food source and/or cover for 'wildlife'. Finches and other birds will feed on the seed of coneflowers as long as possible and beneficial insects like preying mantis will have attached their egg cases to foliages in early fall.
Sound complicated? It's not really and I'll reiterate an earlier tip (see Tips Archive May 2004): both the Janet Macunovitch and Tracy DiSabato-Aust books listed will help guide you with more detailed instructions and suggestions.
The days start getting longer, the sun feels warmer again, winter's finally winding down and we're all itching to get out and start gardening. There's a lot to do in Spring but the first thing to remember is:
So what CAN you do in early Spring?
Ok, you've waited patiently, now its mid Spring, now what should you do?
Oh - if possible, try to wait to plant out annuals, tomatoes, basils and other frost sensitive plants until at least mid May - unless you really enjoy the nightly chore of covering them with sheets, buckets, or frost cloth.
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