Cutting Back the Garden

Pruners are the tool we use most often, most days in the garden. This simple hand tool can tackle many tasks if kept sharp.

Cutting back the garden is the chore every fall that sets the stage for spring.   We empty our containers (unless we planted them for fall/winter) and remove at least the top foot of soil so fresh potting soil can be added in spring.  That takes some work when you have as many large pots as us, and it generates a full pickup load plus some, but it prepares us well.  When doing your fall cleanup, don’t forget to rid yourself of tired soil in your containers.

Hedge trimmers such as these very sharp Japanese ones, make quick work of a single lavender plant.

The size of the garden helps determine the tools that you’ll use.  When you have more than an acre of beds, you’ll do what we do and turn to power tools.   A gas powered shear can take down material so much faster than hand shears.   Hand shears are much faster in turn than are pruners.  Pruners beats chewing on them, unless you’re a rabbit, and then you don’t need help to destroy a garden.  You’re properly equipped.

The age old question is what to take down in fall and what to leave up for winter interest.   When cutting back the garden, it helps to have some experience in your location, with your wind, as to what is worth keeping for winter.  Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ is always a plus.  In some windy locations, Miscanthus is not so nice.  A large Miscanthus (ornamental grass) can become brittle and spread debris in a windy spot.   It can be beautiful in a wind protected garden.   Some experience will tell the tale.   Start by leaving the  grasses for winter.   If you end up regretting the choice, next year is soon enough to change.

Also leave up plants with strong stems and interesting seed heads.  For example, Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ is a good winter interest item with dark seeds held above white snow.   Again, experience will help.  If your garden seems to be a factory for black eyed Susan, then don’t leave the seeds to spread over the winter.  The obvious rule is to remove all seeds (particularly on weeds) from which you don’t want to get more plants of that type.  

If you have many lavender plants or a big perennial border, a gas powered shear is much faster and easier.

Some plants just get easier to clean up if you are not in a rush.  The foliage will make cutting back the garden much easier if you allow it to at least partially deteriorate.  For example, hostas have to have foliage cut from the clump if you cut them back Oct 1.  However, by mid November, they are typically sufficiently deteriorated that you can simply rake up all the foliage with a leaf rake.  It will detach easily from the clump.  If it is still holding tight, just wait a bit.  It gets easier.

Hydrangea blooms last a long time.  Cut back early (while the blooms are still in color) if you want to dry them for indoor decorative use.   Otherwise, decide whether you’ll have more time in fall, or more time in spring, to do the annual bloom removal.  On a huge ‘Limelight’ you’ll be generating a lot of material when you cut off the blooms.  Even an ‘Annabelle’ can produce a prodigious quantity.  That’s why these are so spectacular in season.   We cut ours back in fall since spring is busy.   The types like ‘Annabelle’ that grow low (arborescens or macrophylla) might as well be cut back in fall since snow will really smash the blooms and stems if not cut back.  Upright plants like ‘Limelight’ (paniculata types) can be either season.

Bigger material can require a chainsaw. If you don’t have all the tools, it may be easiest to hire a little extra help for cutting back the garden.

Fall is also a great time to get to pruning and shaping of your plants.   If you need an arborist to help with the big items, it is a good time to hire that help.   Many people who do their own gardening choose to hire some assistance in the fall.  

Finally, fall is a fine time to assess whether your garden has sufficient evergreen material.   Tall pines don’t count, since they are not at eye level.  They only provide trunks to look at.   Does your garden offer green, gold and blue foliage for the winter?   There are many evergreen and deer resistant plants in those colors, as well as plants with berries, that provide winter color.  Add yuccas, or bamboo, or evergreen perennials and the winter garden improves further.   We’ll be getting to that article next month.