Gardeners know: when the days start to lengthen, it’s time to get back to the garden. One of the typical garden activities of winter is ordering seeds and plants. Another is cutting back perennials and grasses in anticipation of Spring, especially in sunny gardens. I leave my perennials, which are predominantly native plants, standing up all winter. They provide food for birds, cover for small animals and shade out winter weeds.
As it gets closer to spring, before the bulbs come up, it is time to cut back those plants and let the sun shine in and warm the soil. The advantage to a late January/ early February cutback is multiple and is a strategy that can be done over the course of a few weeks or even a month and a half so it doesn’t feel rushed.
By late winter, change is coming. I have what is known as a layered planting approach. This could be bulbs or groundcover perennials for spring that get covered by other later blooming perennials. This planting strategy assures that the ground in covered all year and helps with weed management but it also means that cutback of those taller plants is better done in the late winter when most things are dormant vs. in later Spring. In addition, many of our pollinators need the plant stems to overwinter and birds need the fruits and seeds for winter food.
When the plants are dormant, you can walk through the garden without stepping on any actively growing plants. Second, the removal of the old stems will give the emerging plant crowns more light so they will grow out a bit faster. Third, by waiting through the winter, the stems are much more easily cut. Fourth, you have time! Cutting back your garden as section at a time will keep seeds available for birds as they return even as you are setting the garden table for a new meal for them. A few weeks after cutting back the first group, the rest can be cut back or even, if there has been snow, just snap off the rest of the stems which are brittle and ready to be removed.
After cutting things back, take stock of the state of the cool season weed issues which may or may not be in your garden and go after them with relative ease since the old growth is out of the way and active growth of desirable plants is minimal. It is important to get the cool season weeds before they go to seed, which is usually by the end of March. In my gardens, I do rake out the leaves that I left all winter but selectively; in some areas I don’t need to but others I do. And I do like a nice clean edge and will spend a little money on some good quality shredded hardwood mulch or pine fines mainly for dressing up those bed edges.
The end of winter is a great time to figure out what parts of the garden need some aesthetic help and which are your favorite areas for year round interest. The cutback exercise helps to focus your eye and set up the garden for the rest of the year. A well-tended garden is a like a well-choreographed dance. The gardener is the choreographer, selecting and tending the plants; the dancers are the plants that move your eye and body through time and space, creating a joyful sequence, all year long.
By: Ann English, RainScapes Manager