The Frost Is On The Pumpkin! Now What? Putting Your Garden To Bed Part 1: Cutting back perennials
It's late fall in the garden and it's that time of year where the meteorologists start talking about snow and people start to panic. While snow may be in the forecast, in just a few more days it's going to be 45 degrees out, so no need to panic.
It is the end of the season- that much is true. Sadly, that means it's time to put your garden to bed. What's the best time? What happens if I don't get it in before it snows? What plants do I cut back when?. What's involved in that? These are all common questions we receive every year.
Fist and foremost, not to panic. Again, when really was the last time we had snow in Connecticut and it blanketed the ground for the entire winter? Never in my lifetime. Even if it did, your perennials can be cut back in spring. The biggest benefit of cutting back your perennials in the fall is that you reduce the possibility of overwintering disease such as black spot and powdery mildew. Other than that - it's personal. Perennials are cold and slimy in the late winter/early spring and to be honest, I don't really want to be cutting back wet, cold, slimy perennials at the end of the winter when it's only 40 something degrees. 2: I think the garden looks much tidier when all that can be cut back is cut back.
Putting the garden to bed simply means getting ready for cold weather. Cleaning up any debris, scouting for winter weeds and ensuring everything is tidy will go a long way to ensure your garden is in great splendor come spring.
As landscapers along the shoreline this is a regular task we do for our clients at the end of the season. If this is something you tackle yourself, have no fear I'm going to walk you through it.
I've broken it down to cutting back your perennials, pruning, protecting and prepping for spring. Regardless of how much or how little you do, the MOST IMPORTANT thing you can do is clean up any diseased leaves from the fall. Powdery Mildew, Black Spot on roses and other fungi were a HUGE problem this summer. You want to be sure to clean up and remove any of those leaves so those nasty pathogens don't harbor over winter. DON'T compost them!
Normally I am a huge fan of composting. I compost everything in our garden as well as all our kitchen scraps and I don't mind saying that I have a compost pile I'm incredibly proud of (with any luck I'll get a chance to use it in a new vegetable garden this year, but that's a story for another time). If you compost diseased leaves, you have the potential to spread that disease wherever you use your compost, so that's definitely not a good thing.
1. Most perennials can be cut back in the fall., although Chrysanthemums prefer to be left up. There are a few plants such as ornamental grasses and sedum that I prefer to leave up throughout the winter because I think they're structure ads to the beauty of the winter garden.
2. Wait until we have had a hard frost. Some of our clients along the water in Westbrook and Guilford have just had their first frost, while other clients in Durham and North Madison have been frosty for a bit. You want to wait until we've had a hard frost because you don't want to encourage any additional growth in the plants.
Leave some plants for the birds such as Echinacea and Black Eyed Susan.
When you cut back your perennials, you want to cut back almost all the way to the ground. Leave about an inch or two above the soil so you know where your plants are. This is especially true of late emergers such as butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberose), Balloon Flower (Platycodon grandifloras) and Rose Mallow (Hibiscus mosheutos). Because these perennials emerge later than others, by leaving a little of their stems up over the winter, you'll be much less likely to dig into them come spring.
If you decide you want to cut down your sedum, be careful not to cut into the basal foliage at the crown or you could damage the plant next year.
A sharp pair of bypass pruners like these Felco pruners work great for just about everything. If you're cutting your grasses down for the winter (some tend to be messy and shed causing them to blow around) it's great to tag team with a partner and have them hold the grass while you use hedge shears to cut the grass to the base. If you have a large catmint (Nepeta) this is very effective too. Just take your shears and cut the plant almost all the way back to the base. Catmint is indeed as it's name suggests, in the mint family, so you'll be rewarded with a minty aroma!
Remove your annuals from the ground, cut them up and compost them (as long as they're disease free.
3. Remove any dead wood from woody ornamentals. Pruning lavender, azaleas, rhododendrons etc. will have serious negative effects on your plants down the road. Wait until the dead of winter to cut back those roses. Pruning now can encourage new growth, especially with the fluctuating temperatures that are prevalent this time of year. New growth can be damaged by heavy frost and freezing temperatures.
When you're done, your garden should be neat and tidy and ready for winter.
If you are like me and get enthusiastic about your garden, but then run out of time, you might have some perennials that are still in pots. Create a holding area. This can be an area of your yard that's somewhat out of site, or you can use the areas your annuals were in. You can either plant the perennial and transplant it to the appropriate spot in the spring, or you can just plant the whole pot! Simply dig a hole and put the entire plant in it pot and all, back fill it loosely and cover with leaves to protect the crown (the part of the plant where the leaves meet the soil) and you should be all ready to dig it out and plant it in spring.
The last tip I have for you is soil amending. I cannot stress enough how important soil amending is. That goes for anything in your yard, including the lawn. My neighbors thought I was crazy last year because I spread a thin layer of compost all over my lawn. It takes a bit of time to completely work in - and with 2 dogs and a cat constantly in and out....you could say cleaning their feet and my floors was almost a full time job. But it was worth it! I had incredible results (so much so that all my neighbors asked me to take care of their lawn!). Winter is a great time to work in organic material. Whether it's compost, peat moss, cow manure or even bio-solids, your garden and your lawn will thank you.
- A side note about bio-solids. Just as the name suggests, bio-solids is recycled sewage. Isn't that what cow manure is? Recycled solid waste? The EPA is extremely strict about biosolids like malorganite, so don't be afraid of them.
Now that you have some tips for taking care of your garden in fall, you can dream about spring on the days it's 32° out and raining.