October Gardening Tips: Perennial Cutbacks
By Kevin Napora
From his book, “The Perfect Time to Garden”
For some families, Christmas is their biggest celebration, for others maybe an anniversary, but for my family, it is Thanksgiving. Our tradition is that everyone contributes only homemade dishes, preferably with food that you grew or collected. Even now, as I write this, I can practically taste the freshly pulled carrots, potatoes, and beats. Swiss chard rolls, perogies, and homemade breads all steamy out of the oven. And from our outdoor slow cooker an insane melt-off-the-bone turkey or lamb. The entire dinner is held outside on the patio. Everyone is wrapped in blankets or furs. We have heaters, a giant wood fire, and we all sit in the afternoon sun and laugh. Such an incredible gift.
The next day, obliterate the garden.
Cutback week begins when the peony leaves turn red. As a quick review, remember to leave the ground covers alone. Just remove any dead flowers. For mounding plants cut them to 6” (15cm) round. And finally for the vast majority of upright growing plants, they should be cut down to 1”- 2” (2.5cm – 5cm). Ornamental tall grasses or sturdy perennials (Echinacea, Rudbeckia, etc.) should be left up for winter interest. A good rule of thumb is that if plants flower in mid to late September then don’t cut them back. This will allow them to remain strong through the winter.
Often, I up-light my perennials, especially grasses, with my lighting system because I like to see the movement throughout the winter.
You do not have to cut back in the fall, though. Cutbacks can also be done in mid-April. I do have a couple of caveats on this. If you have any disease or pest issues, then I highly recommend cutting back so that you remove any possible leaf litter that may harbour over-wintering eggs or spores. The other caveat is a human trait. In the spring, people just want to see things spring up in the garden. They are looking at new varieties or new furniture or just being outside and marveling at the big yellow ball in the sky that has only suddenly appeared in the horizon after six months. Having to deal with last year’s work and debris often puts a bit of a cloud on your exuberance for the new season.
We have quite a large garden, so the best method we have found for doing cutbacks is to put a large tarp on the ground. Throw all of the cutting on it, drag the tarp to the truck, toss it in, and then take everything to the eco-station. If you have a composter, then a shredder is a fantastic device as it will reduce the bulk and speed up the composting process. Ensure that you keep a few bags as “browns,” if you continue to add to the composter in the winter.
Bagging is usually what most people do, but please ensure you keep the weight down. If you can’t lift the bag then the waste management people will struggle as well. If anything, gardeners are known for being a compassionate group.
Once done, blow all of the remaining leaves onto the lawn and either rake or mow it up and keep the clean leaves for Halloween. Absolutely, though, any twinge of worry from your subconscious mind that there is disease or pests, bag it and toss it. All cutbacks must be finished before Oct 22. Even this date is pushing it. When winter comes, sometimes he stays for good.
Kevin Napora – Master Gardener, Landscape Designer
Kevin believes in the power of nature’s aesthetic to inspire, create and motivate. After acquiring his degree in Horticulture at the University of Alberta, Kevin has spent close to a quarter of a century studying landscaping and designing residential gardens.