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October is a busy month for gardeners. Fall clean-up alone can be a daunting task. It usually includes raking leaves, removing plants from the vegetable garden, pulling out annuals done in by frost and cutting back dead stems of herbaceous perennials.When it comes to perennials, I sometimes get asked whether it’s better to cut back certain perennials now or in the spring. Well, that depends. Traditionally, the practice has been to cut back most perennials every fall. However, more gardeners are deciding to leave their pruning until spring.Left standing, perennials can add color and form to a winter garden. Ornamental grasses, for example, are plants that gardeners frequently leave untrimmed since, in addition to color and form, they can provide movement to a static winter scene. Plus, there are other advantages to keeping old growth on perennials for the winter. Remaining stems and leaves can capture snow, which provides extra insulation for plants. This is especially important for those plants that are only marginally hardy for our area. Birds benefit from the additional coverage that they can use for resting or hiding places. Seed heads left on dried flowers and ornamental grasses also supply birds with much needed fuel this time of year.On the other hand, there are a few good reasons to cut back perennials in the fall. Plants that are harboring disease should be pruned back. Removing diseased plant material in the fall will help prevent problems from reoccurring in the spring. You may also want to cut back perennials that you don’t want spreading by seed. Gardeners may trim unattractive foliage that doesn’t add interest to the winter landscape. Ultimately, one’s own sense of garden tidiness will help make the final decision about how much garden pruning you do this fall.
As a rule of thumb, perennials not pruned in autumn will need to be cut back or dead-leafed in the spring before new growth emerges. Cut back old vegetation to approximately 2-3 inches off the ground. Avoid cutting back too near the crown. Whether you prune your perennials in the fall or spring cut them back when they are dormant. In the fall, if plants are pruned too early it can encourage new growth. This uses up valuable resources the plant needs for next year. If surprised by earlier-than-expected growth in the spring, then just clean-up the plant by pulling out dead stems rather than risk cutting back new growth.As for the vegetable garden, clear out the finished plants and discard any material that was diseased or insect infested. Many pathogens and insect pests can overwinter in the soil. Pull weeds to hopefully reduce their crop for next year. Vegetable or plant matter that was disease-free can be composted or worked into the soil for added nutrients. Fall clean-up is an opportune time to add compost or other organic matter to your vegetable garden.Tidying up garden beds is only part of the story. Fall is the time to attend to a few other tasks as well. If you have any new plantings in your yard, you’ll want to give them a protective layer of mulch to help them through their first winter. Apply winter mulch once the ground is frozen. This helps keep the soil uniformly cold around the roots. Putting down winter mulch too early can encourage unwanted critters to seek shelter near your plants.Now is also the time to plant hardy bulbs and dig up tender bulbs to overwinter. If you plan to bring any plants indoors, be sure to check them first for unwanted guests. Clean and sharpen garden tools and get the lawn mower tuned up to avoid the springtime rush. If you are really ambitious this fall, you might consider organizing your garden shed so everything’s all set to go in the spring.Lastly, keep watering your evergreens, trees and shrubs until the ground freezes and remember to detach the garden hoses from outdoor faucets when temperatures fall below freezing.After all your hard work, sit back and take a breather. Then come the dead of winter, you’ll be ready to start leafing through those seed catalogs and start planning for next season…Margaret Murphy, Horticulture Educator serving Chippewa, Dunn and Eau Claire Counties, Email: [email protected]
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