Don’t kick yourself if you haven’t scalped your garden beds and carted off every blessed leaf. Just feast your eyes on the garden in the photo above, designed, planted and maintained by Wassaic, NY garden designer Ana Hajduk. I took this photo last November and returned in late January to find lots of winter beauty remaining. Ana’s practice is clearly in line with my fall garden cleanup philosophy – If it looks bad cut it off, otherwise let it be and enjoy the process of gradually editing.
Herbaceous perennials that stand out – and stand up to winter
- Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii: seedheads
- Rudbeckia maxima: tall stems with chunky seedheads, blue-green basal foliage
- Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum): silvery bracts, seedheads, stiff upright stems
- Amsonia tabernaemontana: long-lasting foliage
- Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’: dried foliage and flower heads
- Filipendula venusta ‘Magnifica’: Dried feathery plumes
Standing stems and seedheads provide food for birds, shelter for overwintering insects – and good excuses to go outside to tidy up a bit on a nice winter day. Persistent foliage on many herbaceous perennials and grasses keeps the garden looking like a garden well into winter – much more attractive than a sea of frozen mulch. If a plant is still green and looks good, why on earth would you cut it down?
The Xerces Society’s campaign to Leave the Leaves makes a lot of sense. Migrating monarchs get all the press, but most moths and butterflies overwinter (in egg, chrysalis, caterpillar or adult life stages) in leaf litter. Bumblebees and other beneficial insects burrow in to hibernate. Bagging up your leaves and sending them to the landfill wipes out all that life and turns a valuable resource into a waste problem.
In the garden, though, thick mats of sopping wet maple leaves are a surefire way to rot the crowns of perennials if the voles don’t get to them first. Every fall I find perennials and grasses gnawed off at the crown and mouse nests inside eaten-out grass clumps. And every fall I swear I’ll get the leaves out early, leaving no place for varmints to hide from local hawks, owls, foxes and bobcats. Maybe next year I’ll do better, but to be fair, leaves don’t fall all at once, they pile up over time and it’s hard enough to give every bed the once-over.
CUTTING BACK PERENNIALS
- A Japanese garden sickle makes short work of slimy collapsed hostas, tender annuals and perennials turned to mush. Wear gloves and beware of this tool’s piranha-sharp teeth. Then it’s off to the compost bin or pile.
- Dispose of any plant that is diseased or harboring insect pests.
- If some stems have flopped over or broken, but others look fine, just cut off the messy parts. Make an outdoor bouquet if stems still have seeds for the birds, or put some down for ground-feeding birds.
- Many native bees nest in hollow stems, but they can’t penetrate woody plant tissue on their own. Instead of cutting hollow-stemmed plants to the ground, leave 12-18” for next year’s tunnel-nesters. Or lay bundles of hollow stems on the ground in a sheltered place. Replace them every year after bees emerge, to prevent buildup of parasites and diseases.
- Leave a few inches of stem to catch an insulating blanket of snow and remind you where plants are in spring.
- Deadhead overambitious self-sowers, but not plants you’d like to see increase. Let seeds of desirable plants fall where they may, or scatter them around.
- To learn more about sowing native seeds, visit The Wild Seed Project, a Maine-based non-profit working to increase the use of native plants in landscape settings.
Leaving as many plants as possible has given me a whole new outlook on winter. Eco-Friendly News, Views, Clues and How-To’s subscriber (and expert gardener) Kathy Niver wrote me, “With this early snow, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing my perennials strutting their dried stems and seedheads against the virgin snow. I would like to learn more plants that die back with grace and look good throughout winter.”
Some of my favorites are
- Joe Pye Weed
- Ostrich and sensitive fern spore cases
- Heuchera villosa
- Penstemon digitalis
- Rudbeckia triloba
Drop me a line – firstname.lastname@example.org – and let me know what perennials give you pleasure this winter.