Friday, November 22, 2013

Autumn Clean Up - To Cut Back Or Not

Having worked tending gardens for a while now, I still ponder the pros and cons of a thorough Autumn clean-up.  I sit on the fence regarding this. So does my backyard for now.

Viewing my townhouse garden yesterday, I noticed, I was the ONLY one (within my block of units) that hadn't removed nearly every leaf fallen to the ground. I can't help but worry about this - no seed heads for birds, no winter textural interest. I pride myself when a bird perches on a Rudbeckia or Echinacea seed head.

Having a Gleditsia (Honey Locust) shading much of my garden, I get a lot of tiny leaf litter everywhere. Most of it I compost, but not all of it.
I have colleagues, friends and complete strangers asking me what my opinion is regarding cutting back perennials. Cleaning up beds for the last time before winter yesterday, I had a member of the public stop and ask what to cut back. The conversation ended up being quite lengthy and we both ended it with laughter and a further appreciation of gardening.

Looking over the fence, my tidy neighbours have done a great job winterizing their garden.

The other neighbour has removed every leaf and perennial bit possible. (So grateful for tidy neighbours!) I look like the mess maker.
Personally, I have seen the benefits of perennial leafy matter dying and creating a litter layer that insulates plants. Yet I am reminded of the pain in seeing grasses and plants like Perovskia having been weighed down by winds and snow, eventually blowing over snowy areas of the garden and litter walkways..etc. It looks unsightly and ends up becoming more work in the spring. On the other hand, leafy matter like Hosta leaves whither and make a mushy layer that slugs adore. Slug prevention is key to having healthy, hole free foliage.

So here, instead - I've made a list of perennials I would cut back and others I would leave.

Cut Back:
Airy, loose Grasses
(or any plant that seeds itself everywhere, or goes mushy and unsightly)

Leave Alone:
Upright Grasses
Evergreen Grasses
Ground Covers like: Vinca, Hedera, Lamium...
(or any sturdy plant that has evergreen foliage, or growth that remains upright and can withstand snow)

Before and after. My compromise. I've left anything that still looks alright. Hard to believe it's a month away til Christmas!

I can't imagine removing any perennial that still looks this good.

Perennial fall colours are key to keep interest. A little leaf litter will compost down by April.

The best advice I can give when it comes to fall clean up, is not cutting back everything. Decide first:
  • What plants require litter layer so they can properly overwinter. 
  • If you don't know which plants die back to mush, wait til heavy frosts wilt down foliage.
  • Clean up now anything that looks like it may be too much work to do in the spring. 
  • Determine what may cause insect problems next summer. 
  • Leave any plant that gives you interest overwinter. Think of birds, and textures you would like to see in the bleakness of February. 

* Yet, do remember: cutting back perennials in autumn can make you forget where they are come spring. If necessary divisions or renovations of the beds are planned for spring, leaving evidence behind can make life easier for you come job time.

Sad time of year...but at least I can enjoy what's left.

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