Now the nights are crisp and frosty, it is hard to resist the temptation to go out into the perennial garden and clear-cut all of this year’s growth down to the ground. There are several reasons why you may want to resist the urge of cutting back all of the perennial garden.
First of all, if you cut down all your perennials at ground level now, your garden will look pretty darn bare through the winter — just a blank space which will be covered by snow. And, if we don’t get a lot of snow cover, it will be just a blank space of soil and mulch.
If you refrain from clear-cutting the perennial garden in the fall, you’ll have an array of plant skeletons and seed heads to view throughout winter. Although not as showy as the lush greenery and vibrant blossoms of summer, the perennial garden in winter has a subtle beauty not to be missed. And, as winter progresses, these skeletons will be embellished by the crystalline tracery of frost and puffy caps of snow, providing you with an ever-changing seasonal view.
Not only are all those seed heads lovely to look at, but they’re even more attractive when enlivened by over-wintering birds which will feed on them, and even shelter in the harbor of the dead foliage. Scores of perennials provide protein- and oil-rich seeds for birds.
Finally, some perennials, such as Russian sage, are actually subshrubs that have woody stem bases with overwintering buds. These perennials will probably be killed by a severe fall pruning. Instead, wait until early spring and scratch the epidermis, or bark, of the stems. If the tissue is white beneath, the stem is alive. If it is dark brown or blackened, and the bark slips easily, it has been winterkilled. Prune these perennials down into live wood.
As always, there are exceptions to the rule. Any diseased perennials should be trimmed down and their foliage destroyed, as should plants that just sort of turn to black slimy mush after a freeze.
So, just when do I clean up the garden? The answer is during an unseasonably warm early spring day, when I’m about to go crazy from cabin fever!
Anne Lenox Barlow is a professional horticulturist who enjoys gardening with her family in Plattsburgh. She also chronicles her gardening experiences at her blog www.northcountrygarden.wordpress.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.