Monday, October 20, 2014

Fall Clean-up: The Annual Debate

I am of the gardening school of thought that advocates leaving spent perennial foliage through the winter and cutting it back in the early spring. There are number of reasons for this—providing food and shelter for birds and other wildlife, maintaining some color in the garden once flowers are done blooming, having a landing place for snowflakes as well as brown matter to contrast with those snowflakes, in the hope of achieving that elusive "winter interest" in the garden, etc.

Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) seedheads stand 6' tall...when dusted in snow they exemplify "winter interest"
Personally, I have rarely seen birds eating the seeds of my spent plants, although in late summer the goldfinches were feasting on purple hyssop seeds. But I also get the sense that old foliage protects plants through the winter, maybe helping to prevent frost heave and shielding the plant from freeze/thaw cycles. I don't know, it's just a hunch.
'Purple Emperor' sedums with prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) photobombing

However, all those good reasons/intentions do not supersede the reality of dealing with straight-up ugliness in my garden. Essentially, if spent foliage just looks awful, I'm getting rid of it in the fall. Yes, it will all look awful by February, but if it's sad and dilapidated in October there's no chance I want to keep looking at it as it gets soaked, frozen, and increasingly beat down by winter.
Purple hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) with vine-whose-name-I-can't-remember look good in fall and so get to stay

So today I cut back some barren sticks that used to be purple hyssop (I think the finches were done with them, guessing by the looks of them), some flopping stems of brown-eyed susans, and nameless hostas. 'Halcyon', 'Touch of Class' and 'June' all look good, or at least they're on the spectrum between not terrible and still got it. The nameless ones were riddled with holes and yellowing, but not in a good-festive-fallish way. They were feeding nothing but any slugs still lurking around.

'Halcyon' still hanging in there

Am I prioritizing good looks over ecological utility? Maybe so, but overall there are still plenty of food sources, shelter materials, root protectors, etc., still left in my garden. Plus, is it really a bad think to cut back monarda and peony foliage swamped with powdery mildew? Doubtful. Mildew will always be in the soil here, but letting more knowingly incubate under the fall blanket of leaves seems unwise. It's a debate each year about what stays and what goes!
Zizia aurea (left) and Coreopsis tripteris (right)

1 comment:

Rose said...

While I debate what to cut down and what to leave up, in the end it's a matter of how time and energy I have in the fall:) I usually leave the coneflowers standing through the winter, but I had so many in my sidewalk garden this year that it really looked awful once the foliage started turning yellow or brown. So I cut back most of them and left a few to catch the snowflakes.

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