I don’t know about you, but in my garden, fall cleanup can be hit or miss. Whether a function of limited time, gardener burnout or an early cold spell, some years I just let it all freeze dry in place till the spring. I’ve learned to embrace the appearance and find that doing less offers the garden many benefits, including:
- Dried foliage will help protect the crown of perennials from the freeze/thaw cycle; this is especially good for marginally hardy perennials. If you do prune, leave about 3-4 inches from the ground to avoid damaging the crown.
- Dead stems “mark” the plant and lessen the chance of accidentally digging it up or stomping on it in the spring. This is really helpful for plants that “wake up” a bit late in the spring.
- Leaves will decompose and add organic matter to the soil. They can also insulate plants from harsh winter temperatures.
- Dropped seeds produce new plants to fill out your garden or share with others.
- Seed heads provide tasty food for birds.
- Some plants prefer spring pruning, such as grasses and plants with semi-woody stems like Munstead Lavender and Wild Thing Sage or Salvia Greggii. A spring haircut when new growth emerges often yields a plant with better form and growth. (Not to mention increased chance of winter survival.)
- Early season flowering shrubs such as lilacs have already put on the
growth that produce next year’s flowers. If you cut now, you will not have blooms next spring. These plants should be pruned shortly after blooming, or you may have a lilac that looks like this!
Fall garden clean up does not need to be back-breaking work. Just remove diseased or mildewed foliage, lightly cut back long limbs that can be damaged by strong winds and occasionally water if conditions are dry. Your garden will benefit from this “less is more approach”.
Written by Linda McDonnell, Denver County Master Gardener.
A version of this post was originally published in October 2015.