When Should Perennials be Cut Back?

In the Garden Sue Sep 15, 2023
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Disclosure: Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links, which can provide compensation to me at no cost to you if you decide to purchase.  

Should Perennials Be Cut Back in the Fall?

As autumn ushers in cooler temperatures and the vibrant colors of summer fade, many gardeners face the question of whether to cut back their perennials in the fall. The answer isn't always straightforward, as it depends on several factors, including the type of perennials you have, their specific needs, and your gardening goals. In this blog post, we'll explore the pros and cons of cutting back perennials in the fall, which ones should be left uncut for the benefit of wildlife, which provide winter interest, which need winter protection, and which are safe to trim after the first frost.

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1. Perennials That Should Not Be Cut Back: A Feast for Birds

According to Penn State Extension, some perennials serve as vital food sources for birds during the winter months. Leaving them uncut can provide much-needed sustenance for our feathered friends. These perennials often produce seeds or berries that birds rely on for nourishment.

Examples include:

a) Coneflowers (Echinacea): These native wildflowers not only add beauty to your garden but also provide seeds that attract finches and other seed-eating birds.

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b) Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia): Their seed heads offer a valuable food source for sparrows, chickadees, and other small birds.

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c) Sunflowers (Helianthus): Sunflower seeds are a favorite of many bird species, including cardinals and goldfinches.

d) Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium): The seeds of this tall perennial attract a variety of seed-eating birds, adding both visual interest and wildlife value to your garden.

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2. Perennials Not to be cut back: These Provide Winter Interest

Some perennials, if left uncut, can contribute to the winter landscape's beauty and texture. These plants often have distinctive seed heads or architectural forms that catch the frost and snow, creating an enchanting winter garden. In the early spring, you may cut them back.

Some examples include:

a) Ornamental Grasses: Grasses like Miscanthus and Panicum retain their graceful plumes, which look stunning when coated with frost or dusted with snow.

b) Sedums: The dried flower heads of sedums add unique and sculptural interest to the winter garden.

c) False Blue Indigo (baptisia australis): They have interesting elongated black seedpods that stand out against the snow.

d) Hellebore (Helleborus): This provides evergreen folliage and blooms in the late winter.

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3. Perennials Not to Cut Back: These Need Winter Protection

Not all perennials are hardy enough to withstand harsh winter conditions so they may need the dead stems and leaves to remain. Some benefit from protective mulching or cover to ensure their survival through the cold months.

These perennials might include:

a) Lavender (Lavandula): Lavender is susceptible to winter moisture and cold, so it's best to protect it by mulching and providing a layer of straw or evergreen boughs.

b) Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): In colder climates, rosemary may need extra protection from freezing temperatures.

c) Butterfly Bush (Buddleja): Buddleja is often pruned back in late winter or early spring to encourage new growth, so it's generally safe to leave it uncut in the fall.

d) Garden Mums, Anise Hyssop, and Nippon Daisy are more examples.

4. Perennials That Are Safe to Cut Back After the First Frost

Many perennials can be pruned back in the fall after the first frost without harming them. Pruning at this time allows you to tidy up your garden and remove dead foliage.

Some examples of perennials that can be cut back after the first frost include:

a) Hostas: Once their foliage has wilted, you can trim back hostas to keep your garden looking neat.

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b) Daylilies (Hemerocallis): Cut back daylily foliage to the ground after the first frost to prevent disease and maintain garden cleanliness.

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c) Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis): Trim bleeding heart plants back to the ground in late fall to promote healthy spring growth.

d) Peonies: Cut back foliage when it dies back usually after the first frost

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e) other examples include: shasta daisy, yarrow, garden phlox, astilbe, and iris

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The decision to cut back perennials in the fall depends on various factors, including the type of perennials you have, their role in attracting wildlife, the desire for winter interest, and their cold-hardiness. By carefully considering these factors, you can make informed choices about when and how to prune your perennials, ensuring a healthy and vibrant garden that aligns with your gardening goals and contributes to the well-being of local wildlife.

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Disclosure:  Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links, which can provide compensation to me at no cost to you if you decide to purchase.