cutting down perennials for fall clean-up

garden_for_life(5b/6)October 20, 2008

We've talked about this before - I know it is ok to cut down ratty, spent perennials - but is it ok to cut down ones that are still pretty much green in anticipation for soon-to-be hard frost? For instance, I cut down the obedience plant, shasta daisy, lobelia, asiatic lilies, veronica, liatris (which was really brown & crispy - home it wasn't dead), ribbon grass (I hate the papery crap flying all over the yard in the late winter & early spring). I just wanted to do it while it was still a little warm out and not have to get out there in November with freezing hands & ears. That doesn't harm the plant to do it a little prematurely, does it?

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I don't cut down anything still standing until spring. I leave it in place for protection of the roots.

    Bookmark   October 20, 2008 at 2:29PM
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No, it doesn't hut to cut things down or back now in your zone. We've had a few night temps below freezing; no frost as yet, but it's coming. I do my clean up every fall about this time and I'm a zone and a half lower than you. A good snow cover - and you no doubt get lake effect snows from L. Ontario as I do being on L. Superior - is the best protection you can get.

I clean up in the fall so I can get the compost pile layered up and going, and because "winter interest" means nothing buried under snow, and because I don't like dealing with all the leftover mush with new growth emerging in the spring.

    Bookmark   October 20, 2008 at 4:43PM
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Amen to all of the above! My husband puts all the spent foliage through the shredder and composts it. By next spring, I have stuff all ready to put around the plants. And you're so right about "winter interest" being irrelevant when plants are buried under many inches or feet of snow. It's already so cold I dread having to rake the oak leaves yet to fall from the trees.

    Bookmark   October 20, 2008 at 6:00PM
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terrene(5b MA)

I cut down a few plants in the fall, but leave most of them standing through the winter. I leave the seedheads and cover for the birds, and enjoy the "winter interest", as we don't usually have THAT much snow on the ground, and sometimes we don't have any snow cover (which is actually worse for the plants because the ground freezes much colder and it's drier too).

The plants I routinely cut down in the fall are Peonies, Asiatic lilies, anything that was afflicted with mildew or disease, and a few scraggly looking plants.

There are a few that you supposedly should not cut down until spring - Buddleia, Ornamental grasses, any of the western Agastaches, Lavender (sure there are others too). This is because the foliage helps protect the crown and roots from being exposed to winter freezing and thawing. I think the Buddleia and grasses look very pretty over the winter anyway.

    Bookmark   October 20, 2008 at 7:11PM
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At this time of year it's not a problem to cut down plants that are "still hangin' in there". I've been waiting for all of my plants to freeze up and die, but they are resilient little things and are still green and putting out small, unhappy blooms. I chopped them down today. It won't hurt the plants and I can't risk waiting any longer for the frost to get them because it will be December with my luck and I can't do it when it is that cold outside!

    Bookmark   October 20, 2008 at 10:13PM
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I've read there are some you shouldn't trim/cut back until Spring. The ones I've heard of are mentioned above, except mums. I've read you shouldn't cut those back. On the other hand, the only plants I cut down are my phlox because of the p.m. they get. As for snow cover, I'm inland about 8 miles from Lake Michigan and we're never sure of getting enough snow or that it'll last all winter to protect the plants. We get the January thaw and usually lose a lot of snow. Then we get the bitter cold again. So I like to leave the plants alone until Spring.


    Bookmark   October 21, 2008 at 2:48AM
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One thing to keep in mind is that if it works for you and your gardens and particular climates and micro-climates, that doesn't necessarily mean it will be the same for everyone. Trust your instincts or stick with whatever is best for you.

This is my first season trying Russian Sage - read on these boards that RS should be cut down in the spring when new growth emerges. So, that's one I'll leave and see what happens. Trial and error is a good way to get some first hand experience.

But in all the years I've been gardening in this area with very cold winters (but generally good insulating snow cover) - my particular experience with cutting down phlox, tall bearded iris, Siberian Iris, Oriental poppies, Oriental & Asiatic lilies, Veronicas, nepetas, peonies, daylilies, salvias, gypsophylias, hostas, astilbes, ostrich ferns, bleeding hearts, balloon flowers, sedums (the very last things at the bitter end) has been good.

    Bookmark   October 21, 2008 at 11:50AM
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Very good point, duluthinbloomz4 !

    Bookmark   October 22, 2008 at 9:52AM
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I typically clean out my vegetable garden completely in the fall so I can plant early in the spring, but don't clean out much in the perennial garden except plants that are problem self-seeders or have disease problems. Our snow cover is unreliable - some years we have over 100 inches of snow, and some years too little to cross-country ski on, so I leave top growth to catch snow and provide insulation in the low-snow years, and find it all disappears in the heavy snow years. I do clean-up on one of the early warm days when it's too early to do much in the garden as far as planting, etc., but when I want to be outside enjoying the weather after the long winter. As was mentioned above by Terrene, the birds are drawn to seedheads of many plants, so many plants I leave because of the visitors they attract.

    Bookmark   October 22, 2008 at 5:28PM
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kentstar(5b, NE Ohio)

Can I trim down perennials that I planted this September? In particular I have a echinacea plant that I planted in Sept that looks like it needs to be trimmed down, but it is not all brown yet. And, how about euphorbia, coreopsis, or veronica (speedwell)? I planted these all this fall, so they might not yet be acclimated.

    Bookmark   October 22, 2008 at 10:21PM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

I usually leave everything until the spring, but last spring, I promised myself that I would cut down as much as possible in the fall. I find that I had too much to do in the spring and it all looks so ugly until I get it cleaned up. I am wanting to try for the best, prettiest spring garden that I have had so far.

Plants that I have and will leave until spring, are what has already been mentioned. I have lost Buddleia in a year I cut it back in the fall. Perovskia, lavenders, ornamental grasses and anything that is only hardy to my zone 6.

I used to leave plants to overwinter for the birds, but I watch the birds all the time and never see them go near the dead perennials after the fall anyway. I don't think we have that much that interests them.

I have no experience with cutting back plants that are still green/growing. I did however purchase a Hardy Hibiscus last year from Mahoney's in the fall and they had already cut them all back to ground level in their pots, before a freeze.


    Bookmark   October 23, 2008 at 12:39PM
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What about coneflowers that tend to PM in early Fall due to the warm days and cold nights? Is it better to go ahead and cut those to the ground? And how to clean the tools following?

    Bookmark   October 23, 2008 at 4:08PM
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I would cut down and dispose of anything that tends to get powdery mildew.

Cleaning the tools is less important... (and simply hosing them down or wiping them down with a damp rag is sufficient since you probably do that before putting tools away for the season anyway)... than cleaning up the fallen leaves and debris left when cutting down plants with PM. PM fungus can survive the harshest winters on infected plant parts and in debris such as fallen leaves, stems, etc.

The following spring, spores left on the debris that wasn't cleaned up can splash up with rain, or blow on wind currents and reinfect all over again.

    Bookmark   October 23, 2008 at 4:58PM
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mnwsgal 4 MN(4)

Watching the birds through my bedroom window this afternoon I could see some eating echinacea seeds, a couple swaying in the breeze on liatris stems, others in the asters or hopping on the ground picking up fallen seeds. The garden was filled with movement. None of them were at the bird feeders, preferring the fresh seeds of the garden.

Juncos, with their dark hoods, have returned, a sure sign of winter. We had our first hard freeze this week killing off the tender annuals but the hardy annuals and perennials are still blooming and standing tall. I will wait a few more weeks before cutting back.

    Bookmark   October 23, 2008 at 9:53PM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

We usually always wipe down all our clipping tools with alcohol every time we put them away. Actually anytime we cut down any plant material that is diseased, they are cleaned before using on other plants too. We have a bottle of alcohol on the kitchen counter throughout the growing season since it gets so much use.

    Bookmark   October 24, 2008 at 3:27AM
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