2011-11-03 / Features

The Potting Shed

Tidying Up The Perennial Garden And Other “To-Do’s”
By Carole McCray


McCray McCray Preparing your perennial bed for winter means discretionary cutting back certain plants. Fall cutting or spring cutting depends on several factors of your perception of your garden; those are: the needs of your plants; choosing to provide food and protection for winter birds and the plants that lend winter color, texture and interest to your garden.

It is not unusual to postpone the cutting of some plants till spring; others can be cut in the fall. Delaying spring cutting means the visiting birds will be able to feed on seeds and berries from plants such as ornamental grasses, shrubs like viburnums and buddleia (butterfly bush), coneflowers (Echinacea) and sedums. Foregoing cutting of swaying ornamental grasses and arching branches of a butterfly bush will make your garden aesthetically pleasing when the garden is at rest during the cold months.

I like to prune the ornamental grasses and butterfly bushes in the spring because they lend an architectural look to the winter garden. The interesting seed heads, arching branches of perennials and shrubs all lend texture, form and a lovely backdrop against our austere winter landscape.

Tender perennials need not to be cut back till fall. Plants that you have learned over the years that are not reliably hardy should have a spring cutting. By waiting till spring, plants such as mums, lavender and asters will have their old foliage throughout the winter months to protect the crowns of the plants.

Inspect plants for disease of insect infestation and cut those plants back in the fall. Remove the cuttings and place them in the trash. Discard annuals blackened by frost and clean up the area where they were planted. Geraniums, impatiens, petunias, coleus and begonias fall into that category of succumbing to the first hard frost.

Wait until the first hard frost to do your cutting. If you cut back the plants too early, it means you are stimulating growth and using up energy reserves. Cutting back too early when a hard frost hits the young new foliage means the plant may not come back in the spring.

Many gardeners are unsure of how much to cut. To be able to see the stems of the plant in the spring, cut back in the fall two or three inches above the ground. Mark your plants with plant markers, or draw a diagram of your garden that shows where plants are located. Garden markers are available at garden centers or can be ordered through garden catalogues. Come spring you will easily spot your plants as the new growth emerges and should recognize the plants since your markers or your drawing act as a reference for identification.

With the tremendous heat wave of the past summer, gardeners are always looking for easing the gardening chores. These additional tips can help:

Compost leaves and summer annuals and add only those that are disease free to your compost pile. Remember to add grass clippings and kitchen waste, too.

Harvest your cool weather crops such as kale, broccoli and cabbage. Remove any that are diseased to garbage bags.

After harvesting vegetables and disposing of the vegetable plants, rototill your soil or turn the soil to incorporate organic matter. You can do the same where annuals were planted; if plants were disease free, they can be turned into the soil by digging or rototilling them.

Mulching can be applied in the fall. Do not apply directly against shrubs, the stems of perennials or right up to tree trunks. A good time to mulch in the fall is following a hard frost; if applied then, the soil will not heave so much during the winter months.

Save major tree and shrub pruning for spring. Only prune flowering shrubs immediately following flowering in spring and summer to encourage their formation of new buds and flowers for next season.

Bring in any tender herbs or plants that can keep you company indoors, and pot up rosemary, scented geraniums, coleus and tuberous begonias for indoor houseplants.

To have spring color in the garden, have your spring flowering bulbs in the ground. Dig up gladioli, dahlias and other summer bulbs and winter over in a cool, dry area such as a basement. Place bulbs, not touching, in a sturdy container. A large plastic box with a lid will work, and place dry, clean bulbs in dry sand or peat moss. Cover them with more dry sand or peat moss. Remove bulbs in the spring to plant.

With your “to-do’s” list completed and gardening tools cleaned and stored till next season, your time can be devoted to perusing gardening catalogs and planning next year’s garden.

Carole McCray lives, writes and gardens in the scenic Laurel Highlands east of Ligonier, Pa. She is an award-winning writer; her most recent award was the Garden Writers Association Award for her article on Native Seeds which appeared in The Christian Science Monitor newspaper. She can be reached at mountain26@verizon.net. Photos courtesy of McCray.

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