The Perennial Maintenance Question: When Should I Cut Back the Garden?

October 15th, 2012 § 6 comments § permalink

Rainy-Day, Autumn Maintenance in My Wildflower Walk: Cutting Back Withered Perennials & Removing Weeds

Ah, October. One minute it’s freezing cold and you’re pulling on the wooly socks, and the next you’re stripping to your t-shirt and slathering on the sunscreen. I wonder… Do gardeners in other regions talk about the weather as much as the folks here in New England? A few years back, I was enjoying a live Lewis Black rant on meteorological events, when the comedian turned his attention to the peculiar phenomenon known as New England weather. Only in Boston, he fumed, can one experience: “…thunder, lightening and snow— together”. The audience groaned in unison and filled the room with nervous laughter. It’s true: no matter what the season, you just never can tell what’s in store in our unpredictable climate. Mother Nature certainly has a varied bag of tricks reserved for those of us living in the northeast, and last year, she brewed up a nasty Halloween blizzard; knocking out the power for days and canceling trick or treating (visit last year’s post for photos of the beautiful horror). So with all of this zany New England weather, deciding when to put what “to bed” in  the garden can be a bit of a challenge.

In Mid-October, Seed Pods and Dried Flower Heads Add Textural Interest & Contrast in a Garden Filled with Autumn Foliage (Doctor Woo Relishes an Afternoon of Fall Mouse-Hunting while I Spread Mulch and Tidy Up the Garden)

Last year’s early snowfall caught many gardeners —including this one— by complete surprise. Ornamental grasses, textural seed heads and dried flowers were all crushed by a heavy, white blanket. It was the first time in many years that my garden shut down early. Normally, hoar frosts and light, November snow squalls add seasonal beauty to the garden; tracing skeletal forms in delicate, glistening layers of ice crystal and white lace. For this reason, as well as a desire to attract wildlife, I prefer to leave most textural plants —such as Rudbeckia, Coreopsis, Eupatorium, Miscanthus, Echinacea, Rodgersia, and Asters to name a few— standing throughout the winter months, and cut back whatever remains of these perennials in early spring. However there are some perennials I trim back fairly soon; such as the “melter” plants, including Hosta and Ligularia, and the “scraggle dogs”, like Aruncus, Phlox maculata and Heliopsis. After the first hard frost, I try to critically evaluate the landscape and cut back perennials that no longer provide sustenance to wildlife or add structure, texture or color to the overall garden design and composition. And although I clip back certain woody plants to within 4″ of the ground —Hydrangea arborescens, Perovskia atriplicifolia, Lespedeza thunbergii, etc— I leave most structural pruning for late winter and detailing of woody perennials for early spring.

I Prefer to Leave Certain Dried Flowers —Such as Rodgersia (Shown Above) & Astilbe— Standing in the Secret Garden, to Catch Frost, Ice and Snow. These Perennial Plants will be Cut Back in Early Spring

One of the Great Joys of Ornamental Grasses is the Winter Beauty They Provide in the Garden. Shown Here, Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’) Coated in a Layer of Ice

Two of My Favorite, Architectural Flowers —Rudbeckia and Echinacea— Provide Sustenance to Overwintering Birds. Seed Producing Flowers are Always Left Standing in My Garden. What Remains will be Cut Back in Late April or Early May

Deciding which perennials to cut back when is often a matter of personal preference and garden style. The seed pods and drooping, dried flowers that one gardener thinks poetic, another might consider a terrible mess! You may like your garden neat and tidy, but in terms of protection, most perennials are quite hardy and need very little TLC. Zone marginal and newly transplanted perennials should always be cut back and mulched for winter protection, but established perennial borders are far less fussy. In my own garden, I leave most plants standing and clean up remnants in early spring. Do you have a specific question about when or what to cut back in your perennial garden? I spent the first 15 years of my professional, horticultural career maintaining gardens, and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned. Please feel free to ask about autumn perennial maintenance in the comments, below!

Garden Design & Installation: Michaela Medina Harlow

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