Saturday, November 10, 2012

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To Cut, or Not to Cut

To cut, or not to cut: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the garden to suffer
The stalks and seedheads of outrageous foliage,
Or to take pruners against a sea of dead leaves
And by cutting end them?

 -- With apologies to William Shakespeare

Hamlet’s got nothing on me, at least when it comes to cutting back the garden each fall. I’m always of two minds.

Should I leave the foliage of my perennials and ornamental grasses up all winter? Or should I cut them all down?

I fell in love with the look of seedheads and ornamental grasses in winter after reading the books of Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf. The Lurie Garden in downtown Chicago, where he designed the perennial plantings, is an excellent example.

Ornamental  grasses along with my evergreens provide some much needed structure in the winter landscape. I also love the way the grass foliage can wave in the wind and cast shadows on the snow.

Seedheads provide food for the birds in the winter. Coneflowers (Echinacea ssp.) especially seem to be popular with my feathered friends. There’s generally nothing left on them by the time spring arrives even though I regularly stock two bird feeders.

Coneflower seedheads in the winter garden

The foliage can provide shelter to birds and other living creatures as the cold weather finally arrives. In addition, it insulates the crowns on plants I’ve added in the past season. The survival rate in my garden has definitely improved by waiting until spring to cut everything down to the ground.

With this year’s drought, though, the question of whether to cut is proving to be more problematic than usual. The remains of my peonies, for example, don’t look good – with black spots over large portions. I’m going to cut them off and bag them, just in case it’s due to a disease or fungus. Leaving them up would only compound any problem.

I'm also thinking about pruning everything around my bulbs and spring bloomers. Because the weather got so warm so early last spring, I didn't get a chance to cut down the clutter around them until they were already up and growing fast. Spring clean up was much more difficult than usual as a result.

I know that my catmint (Nepeta x faassenii  'Walker's Low), a sprawler if ever there was one, could easily stand one more "haircut" this year. Ditto for my daylilies.

Prairie dropseed foliage in the winter garden

Then there’s the question of my soil. Although I put lots of compost in my clay soil initially, I haven’t done it for a few years now. Boy, could you tell during the drought this last summer. Some newer beds especially fared poorly.

My garden obviously needs more organic matter and fall is a good time to do it. That way, the compost or other material can break down over the winter, just in time to provide nutrients to my plants in the spring. Besides, spring usually is too wet to work with clay soil. (At least I can hope that will be the case after this year's drought.)

Amending the soil will be difficult unless I cut down most, if not all of the foliage in some areas. At this point, I’m waiting for a soil sample to come back before making a decision. It might be a case where, as Hamlet said, I must be cruel only to be kind.

I've been lucky so far because the weather has turned a bit warmer, allowing me to hold off making a decision. I 'd like to do something before the snow flies, which probably won’t be long now. Let’s just hope it doesn't turn out to be, as another Shakespeare character once noted, the winter of our discontent.

By Karen Geisler


  1. Not to cut, my motto. Unfortunately, my neighbor swoops in and cuts my garden. Thinks it is too messy in winter, yet I like the look and what it provides for nature.

    1. Your neighbor cuts your garden? Wow! I can't even get my neighbor interested in putting in a few annuals. My condolences.

  2. I have such a small property I usually clean up most of the garden in the fall. I do leave the grasses and certain plants that do better if left standing for the winter. I just did a second cutting on the daylilies the other day.


    1. Has some of your daylily foliage turned a bright yellow? Some of mine has and I can't remember the last time that happened. Cut some back today but will leave the colorful foliage up for another week.

  3. I have a similar approach. My nepeta is also in great need of a haircut, but I'm going to leave it until late winter because I imagine it will provide good insulation to the roots of other plants over the winter. My beds did not fare as badly in the drought because I watered far more than usual, and I have the water bills to prove it.

    1. I also have the water bill to prove it. It's cheaper than replacing everything though. Gave all of my evergreens a good watering today. You could hardly tell 5 minutes later, the ground is still so dry.

  4. Sounds like we have similar opinions on this matter. Except that I almost always cut back the stems and foliage on my peonies. I usually leave 2-3 inches of stems and then load a light layer of leaves on top for insulation. Most of my other perennials hold their stems and seedheads until spring. I do try to deal with the dead annual stems in the fall, but sometimes the snow flies before that happens. ;-)

    1. Looks like we may have snow tonight or tomorrow. Hope it doesn't stay long!

  5. I leave most things uncut until spring and even have leaf mulch from the trees and the bulbs did fine making it through...I had hoped to cut a few more things back but my job is killing my time and now I won't ge ta chance until after Thanksgiving if the weather stays half way decent.

    1. I hear you. It's too bad that sometimes our jobs get in the way of gardening. I had hoped to plant more bulbs this fall but just didn't get the time.