Good Night, Sweet Perennial
by Carrie Paulk
Now that the landscape is strongly suggesting the occasion of fall, you know it's only a matter of time before your garden perennials will decide to pack up and call it a growing season. However, some perennials tend to pack haphazardly, casting off dried leaves here and spent seed pods there, leaving your garden looking more like a compost pile than a flower bed. Many of us just raise up our arms in frustration and accept the fact that our gardens will just be a bare mess for the winter; after all, spring is only four to five months away, right?
Don't give up on your winter garden just yet; there are ways to avoid the Post-Modern Compost Style in your landscape. All you need is a free day and some essential gardening tools to clean up your perennial beds and keep them looking manicured throughout the off-season. By knowing which perennials to cut back, which ones to leave alone, and which ones that can still add winter interest, you can help your perennials survive the winter, and perform remarkably the next year.
Now, let's go over your garden tool checklist for your fall perennial cleanup. Bypass pruners? Check. Rake? Check. Garden gloves? Check. Shovel and spade? Check and check. You're all ready to hack back your perennials now, right? No! Before you take a pruner to anything, first you need to know what you've got. Each perennial plant is different; some should be cut off all the way to the ground, others should not be cut at all, and yet others should be cut some, and then cut differently come early spring. Once you know which is which, you can selectively prune your plants effectively.
Most perennials are of the herbaceous kind, that is, they die back to the ground every year. Some well-known herbaceous perennials are daylilies, hostas, and astilbes. During your fall cleanup, you want to prune the dead leaves and stems back to the ground level, and then tuck them into their beds with a layer of mulch. As a general rule of thumb, mulch shade perennials more and sun-loving perennials less, as the sun perennials are more prone to rot. The mulch layer will also keep the root system from drying out during the winter.
Another group of perennials are the semi-herbaceous bunch. These include plants like black-eyed Susans, shasta daisies, and goldenrod. These perennials shoot up long flowering stems that die back after blooming, but the crown of basal leaves at the bottom of the plant are evergreen. To winterize these plants, cut back the dead and dying flowering stalks and leave the green leaves. The plants use these leaves to photosynthesize throughout the winter, and they also help add some much-needed color to the winter garden.
The last group of perennials are the evergreen and subshrub perennials. Some evergreen perennials are candytuft and moss phlox, and some subshrubs are plants like butterfly bush, Russian sage, and artemesias. The only pruning you want to do to these plants in fall is the removal of dead plant material and leggy growth from evergreen perennials. You do not need to prune the subshrubs at all. Doing so might end up being harmful to the plant.
Some other perennials that you might want to consider leaving alone are plants that provide structural interest or seeds for birds. Many people leave ornamental grass to provide interest, and perennials like purple coneflower and sunflower provide food for birds through the winter. Leaving these perennials be will be much more rewarding than cutting them back to the ground.
All right, now you know the different types of perennials out there, and how to properly care for them during this transitional season. You can now know the difference between an herbaceous and semi-herbaceous perennial. You can now use that knowledge to properly identify your plants, and correctly prepare them for the winter. You now know when to mulch more or mulch less, and why. Now, you can clean up your landscape while still keeping your perennials healthy for next spring, and make your yard the envy of the neighbors. Now . . . now you're ready.
About the Author Carrie Paulk is the author of "Good Night, Sweet Perennial,"which is part of the Tip of the Week program with Turf Tamer, Inc. Shehas written many informative landscaping articles. To learn moreabout landscaping tips and tricks, you can find the rest of her articles at http://www.turftamerinc.com/tip.shtm . She can be reached at carrie(at)turftamerinc.com.