Tidiness is not paramount in my garden, and working when it's cold is not my strong suit. Is it absolutely necessary to clip a garden down and weed it and so on in fall? - J.S. -
A garden must please its owner. If you enjoy an unclipped garden, let yours stand tall over winter. It has its own charms, such as offering more shelter and forage for birds and beneficial insects, and leaving a taller, thicker cushion between the soil and soil-crumb-destroying hard rain or pelting hail.
On the other hand, an intact garden conceals weeds, might allow disease or insect problems to build up from minor to major level, and can cost a gardener significant time, come spring. (See below).
We compromise. We don't go out and clean up a bed all in one day but cut back gradually over a month or so. We remove plant parts that had a significant disease- or insect problem and anything that falls down or stops contributing to the garden's good looks. Eventually, the only stuff left is attractive, healthy and sturdy enough to stand through winter.
We often bundle what we cut, tie those sheaves with string and lay them down along a garden's edge after we weed. They form a windbreak, offer seed to birds and contribute to the reservoir of beneficial insects or fungi in spring.
Still standing in our gardens most Halloweens are peonies with healthy foliage and good fall color, still-blooming mums and asters, sturdy turtlehead (Chelone) stems with handsome seedheads, ornamental grasses, evergreen subshrubs such as lavender, etc. We'll enjoy all of them until a hard freeze comes, then cut a few more and leave others right through winter. Early in spring we'll cut what remains.
Right: Ravenna grass (Erianthus ravennae) with the red brown stalks of turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) at its feet.
Looking for more fall color in your perennial garden? Go look at labeled display gardens, such as at Specialty Growers in Howell, Michigan where some of the peonies strut their stuff each fall. Note the best looking varieties to add to your own collection.
Even if you do no cutting in fall, cutting can still be optional in spring. Plants do just grow back through their old debris. However, many people can't bear the shaggy transition, with old plant parts visible into June, and the omnipresent tangle does make weeding and dividing more difficult.
If you'd rather not learn this wilder approach to gardening but time savings are important, act now to do a clean up, because fall is the most productive season.
Our records over many years tell us that waiting to work in spring can mean spending three hours in a bed that could have been whipped into shape in one hour in fall. Reasons for this include:
• Cutting firm, crisp stems in fall is easier and quicker than clipping away mushy debris in spring.
Clipping a whole batch of stems to the ground when new basal growth is nil is quicker than cutting old stems one at a time from among emerging new stalks.
• Plants plug away all winter and get ahead of us. They are not dormant through winter, but grow into early winter and resume growing on moderate days in late winter and very early spring so that weeds and unwanted perennials can be much more difficult to remove by spring. Lawn at a bed's perimeter can grow 18" into a bed between November and April.
• "Free" mulch in the form of fallen leaves is readily available. Leaves can fall to cover a well-weeded bed, stretching the effect of that work. Having large quantities of leaves is also great if we employ the labor-saving technique of smothering areas too weedy to be efficiently readied for new planting. When that area is cut short, covered with newspaper and then a heavy mulch layer (leaves!) the growth of plants in it is prevented or slowed. The space looks neat during the smother period and may be ready to be sown with grass seed or replanted in low care groundcovers and shrubs by the following summer, all without laborious weeding.
• There's a psychological advantage in working with plants going dormant. We are less likely to be rushed, overwhelmed and prone to misjudgment now. These hazards are real in spring when green shoots are popping up underfoot as we work.
• We're all younger and in better shape each fall than the next spring. Thus we work more efficiently now.