No matter how we may try to pretend otherwise, it’s now late fall. Although there are still plants in denial that are still blooming, most have succumbed to the rigors of a busy summer and are preparing for a nice winter’s nap. As we look out at our gardens, we see a mish-mash of leaves and stems and realize that we need to do something about it before winter comes.
Or do we?
First of all, LEAVE YOUR SHRUBS ALONE right now. Pruning them now could cause them to try to put on new growth if the temperatures stay above freezing, growth which would be too soft to survive the winter. After the deep freeze has set in, feel free to shape and cut off diseased or damaged wood to your heart’s content if it is a fall blooming shrub. If it blooms in the spring, know that if you prune it now (Other than taking out dead or diseased wood) you will be cutting off all your flowers for next year. The safest bet is to leave it alone until Spring, when you will be able to see what is dead and what isn’t, and to customize the pruning to your specific type of shrub. After all, it’s a long winter, and we gardeners have to have something to do, so researching your shrubs’ specific pruning needs is a great way to spend a snowy afternoon. You can sharpen your pruners while you’re at it, but we digress…
There are two different schools of thought when it comes to cutting back perennials. One is that it looks neater, and that by removing dead leaves and branches you are helping prevent the spread of disease. If you are in that camp, then now is the time to get out your pruners and do some serious work. The other school of thought favors leaving seed pods for the birds, grasses for interest, and dead stems to help insulate the crown of the plant over the winter. This is also valid, and has the advantage of giving you the excuse you need not to do it until Spring, when enthusiasm is at an all time high.
There is a third approach, and that is one of selective cutbacks. The foliage of plants like Daylilies and Iris is thick, and after a frost or two it gets rather pulpy and disgusting, rotting over the winter into slimy strings of brown, which can be the perfect breeding ground for diseases. Dead Hosta leaves are almost as bad. Cut these down, and everything will be the better for it. Leave up grasses, plants like Echinacea that produce seeds that the birds like, or Baptisia that has interesting seed pods. Sedum looks nice, too, especially with a dusting of snow. Winter is a great time to appreciate the silhouettes of our plants.
“The leaves fall, the wind blows, and the farm country slowly changes from the summer cottons into winter wool.”