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Fall Perennial Maintenance

by Laura Tattersall 

While perennials need some maintenance all season, fall tends to be a busy time.
    One task that should be done before the end of fall is assessment:  Take the time to look at each garden and make decisions about what works, and what doesn’t.  This is a good time to edit unruly plants, and also decide which plants you want to get more of for next season (or now if you like, fall planting works well for perennials). Digital photo’s can be a great tool, as of course are notes and diagrams.  Planning in fall can help avoid common pit-falls of planting something in “that hole” only to find that something late but big is now being crowded out.
    Although it is a pain, weeding should be addressed before the plants are cut down (even if you don’t cut in fall).  Find out which weeds are perennial (dandelions, thistles and burs come to my mind) and which are annual. Work hard at getting rid of the perennial weeds.  If you are really lacking time, even pulling the seed heads off can make a big difference to next years weed crop.  Edges save time in the long run, grass is one of the most problematic weeds in the perennial border.  Mowers should never blow clippings into the garden, and I would not mulch with grass clippings.

    To cut or not to cut.......  as a general rule of thumb, if it looks brown or yellow it is a good idea to cut it.  ***Some perennials are evergreen, and so should not be cut!!***
Hellebores, Heuchera, Daisies and Iberis leap to mind...when in doubt, do not cut. Fall cutting down of perennials is mostly a neat and tidy thing. Perennials in nature don’t get cut down in fall; however over the winter they would be grazed (think goats who eat everything....). In a suburban garden, it will look tidier to be cut. Another consideration is how much time you want to spend in spring, as well as bulb placement. Cut down areas with bulbs underneath in fall. When I cut I generally leave about 6 inches of stem showing, this helps to remind me in spring of where things are. The stems also help collect leaves and then snow. Both of which will help your garden winter better. 

    We generally not only leave the leaves that fall in the garden there, we actively rake leaves in. The top down method of perennial pruning can also help add mulch for winter. A good snow cover helps more tender perennials winter well. Evergreen boughs or leaves can help as well. Avoid hay and some straw (which have grass seed).

    Generally fall clean-up can start by 3rd week of October, depending very much on killing frost. While it is impossible to pull weeds once the ground freezes, it is very easy to cut down plants.  Generally through September and October I am cutting plants as they turn yellow or brown.
There are two general techniques. One involves cutting the whole plant at the base and taking it away to compost. The second method involves cutting the plant down inch by inch from the top.   One concern with the top down method is disease, so plants prone to mildew should have their leaves taken away (Monarda and Summer Phlox for example).
    We find a small tarp to be one of the most useful methods when doing large scale cleanup work. Once full the tarp can be dragged to the compost. For small scale I use large pots (they drain if I leave them out for a while) or garbage cans (but garbage cans can quickly become too heavy when weeding).

    If two people are working together, a pair of large hedge pruning shears work well, one person collects the plant up, the other cuts.  Some people use string trimmers, but I find the mess factor to be a draw back.  I do however use my riding mower on meadow type gardens, usually late in the fall as a one time deal.  By myself I generally simply use my hand pruners (a holster is a great aid), with my left hand gathering the plant, right hand cutting (be careful not to cut your fingers!!).  Some people use the big shears, then rake out the mess.  Large areas of soft plants are easy to do that way, however tougher plants can be a pain.

    Don’t forget that gardening is real exercise. Cold fall weather can lead to stiff muscles and sore joints. Wear layers. Warm up before you start (a walk around the property perhaps, to assess what needs to be done) and stretch afterwards to help get the kinks out.

    At the end of the season is also a good time to do tool maintenance. I oil the handles of all my tools with linseed oil, sharpen blades as needed, and make sure they are clean before they go away.
Before the hoses go away for the winter (usually just before Halloween) water all your evergreens well, especially if it has been a dry fall.  Evergreens continue to transpire through winter, and so benefit from extra water in fall.

Made in the Shade Perennials Inc.
3626 Hwy 2 RR 3 (4.5 km east of Joyceville Rd.)   Gananoque,  Ontario    K7G 2V5
Phone: (613) 382-8251   eMail: