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2006 Tips Archive

 

Fall, 2006

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.

Think Spring!

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Spring, 2006

Spring Forward

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:

  • Don't do too much too soon - it's still very cold many nights and days in early Spring, so be patient about removing leaf mulch or evergreen bough mulch too soon or be prepared to "re-cover" tender young shoots when the mercury plunges.
  • When you DO remove winter protection mulches, do so carefully to avoid damage to new shoots. A cloudy day is ideal to prevent "sunburn" on pale new growth.
  • Avoid walking in and working in bed areas when soils are soggy and wet. Compacted soil can smother new root growth.

So what CAN you do in early Spring?

  • Clean, oil and sharpen those garden tools you never quite got to last Fall.
  • Repair or replace broken tools, leaky sprayers and hoses. Install new washers in all hoses, nozzles and sprinklers.
  • Plan new garden areas.
  • Since new ornamental grass growth is quite frost hardy, you can feel free to cut back the old foliage on your ornamental grasses now. Note: semi-evergreen grasses, like Blue Fescue, Helichtotrichon (Blue Oat Grass) and sedges (Carex varieties) should not be cut back quite as early, if at all. A careful hand culling of any dead foliage may be all they require.

Ok, you've waited patiently, now its mid Spring, now what should you do?

  • Top dress beds with time release and granular fertilizers. We recommend, use and sell Osmocote time release fertilizer, a great all purpose blend that is temperature activated so it will not release nutrients when the soil is too cold for plants to benefit.
  • If Rhododendrons or other acid loving shrubs are off color (yellowed), we apply Holly Tone. This organic fertilizer is slow acting but that is ideal for nursing those plants back to good health.
  • Wait until plants are really actively growing to apply water soluble fertilizers like Miracle Gro. Ask us about Jack's Classic fertilizers from the inventor of the original Peter's formula. We like these fertilizers a lot.
  • Also, top dress with compost now, if possible. It can't hurt. It's the best treatment for garden soil.
  • Remove winter protection mulches and touch up weed suppressing mulches, if you use them, now.
  • Weed, weed, weed. An hour spent on weeds in Spring can save a day's worth of effort in the summer! Carefully hoe and/or hand pull weed seedlings. Herbicides? Stop in and talk to us about their uses and organic alternatives.
  • Spring is also the time to divide many perennials but that's a big topic we'll have to address in a future tip.

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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