It’s not always a pretty sight when I put my perennial gardens to bed in the fall.
Some friends have recommended my property be surrounded with caution tape and be designated a hard hat area. Just because I am into power tools and high-speed maneuvers, however, is no reason to panic. The following are some of my tried and proven, record-setting steps for fall clean-up.
Rather than dreading this project, approach it with gusto. This is not the time to be timid. Whacking back gardens is a super way to relieve stress, burn calories and amuse the neighbors. Unlike some children, plants don’t talk back and they obediently submit to authority.
It is actually good for most perennials to be cut back in the fall. Some warrant a ‘pass over’ though, preferring an early spring pruning for better winter survival. Lavender, Russian Sage, Butterfly Bush, Montauk Daisy, ornamental grasses and mums are in this category. You can also leave selected perennials for winter interest and bird snacks. Coneflowers, Sea Holly, Globe Thistle and Black-Eyed Susans are tasty treats for hungry beaks.
Cutting back perennials in fall and removing the debris reduces problems with fungal diseases and destructive insects the following year. Instead of fungal spores and insect eggs overwintering in the soil, they are whisked away in recycling bags. You can also compost the cuttings in your compost pile, but be sure that the internal heat is hot enough (130 to 140 degrees) to take care of most problems.
My tool of choice for cutting back gardens is an electric or battery powered hedge trimmer. I am also fond of the lawnmower, weedwacker and machete. Chainsaws scare me. Anytime after mid-October is a great time to let the good times roll. Grab a power tool and giddy–up. Make sure all pets and children are clear of the garden. Cut back plants to within two to three inches of the ground. If plants are shorter than this, they remain untouched. I also tend to let Coral Bells slip by, although sometimes the tops get a crew cut.
Once the gardens are whacked back, it’s time to dig in, I mean, drill in spring blooming bulbs. A steel bulb auger makes this a fun and invigorating activity. Just screw the auger into a power drill and feel the power. It matches the thrill of my old Dodge Ram truck any day. My son and I actually make this an annual ‘bonding’ activity. He drills the holes, I whip in the bulbs and kick back soil into the hole. The only thing I toss into the hole with bulbs is chicken grit (available at Agway and other farm & feed stores) or gravel. This keeps chomping critters – moles, chipmunks and squirrels – from noshing. The sharp fragments don’t feel nice on tender noses. Forget adding a dollop of bulb fertilizer. This is just a marketing scam in my opinion. The bulbs get their dose of fertilizer in April when I cast 5-10-5 on all of my gardens.
After the ‘Big Drill” I grab chicken wire and place a hoop around my Hydrangeas that form their flower buds on ‘old wood’. Similar to Lilacs, Forsythia and Magnolias, many Mophead and Lacecap Hydrangeas (the macrophylla group) form buds for next season’s flowers in the fall. These buds are sensitive to Old Man Winter’s icy temperatures. The outcome of a particularly cold or windy winter is little or no blooms the following year, as well as big frowns on our faces. So I cage in my hydrangeas with chicken wire and then pack leaves inside the cages to create insulating nests around the precious buds. In the spring I pull off the wire and leaves and am rewarded with gorgeous summer flowers. All is well.
Of course, the easier way is to increase the odds of great flowering macrophylla Hydrangeas is to work with cultivars that bloom on old and new wood. This provides double the odds for more flowers. Even if those on old wood are taken out, the buds that bloom on new wood will come to the rescue for later flowering. Popular Hydrangeas in this group are ‘Endless Summer’, ‘Blushing Bride’, ‘Penny Mac’ and Twist-n-Shout’.
Next, I mound up my roses. I create those ‘mulch volcanoes’ that are no-no’s’ around trees. Six-to-eight-inch high mounds help insulate rose trunks from winterkill, though as with all living things there are never any death-defying guarantees. My climbing roses receive an extra ‘winter jacket’ with an application of Wilt-Pruf, an anti-desiccant. Anti–desiccants are typically applied to broad-leaved evergreen shrubs, like Rhododendron, Boxwood and Holly, as added winter protection. It serves the same insulating duty on the canes of my climbing roses.
At this point you are probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned winter mulch. Keep wondering. I refuse to put ‘blankies’ on my gardens. I’ll give my son an extra winter blanket, but my gardens have to fend for themselves. If I am faithful to growing plants for my hardiness zone, siting them in the correct light and nurturing healthy soil, I should not need to baby them through the winter. If a plant doesn’t make it by Old Man Winter, I will find one that does. Enough said.
So what’s your call? Should my gardens be designated a hard hat area? Before you answer, think about how satisfying it would be to have your gardens whacked back, ‘bulbed in’, and wrapped up for the winter in half the time.
Kerry Ann Mendez is a garden designer, speaker, teacher and writer and the owner of Perennially Yours in Ballston Spa. Visit her website at www.pyours.com