Learn when to cut back perennials. Should you do it in the fall or in the later winter or early spring?
When to Cut Back Perennials: Fall or Spring?
Do you cut back your perennials as part of your fall cleanup? Maybe you’re a neat and tidy person who cannot stand the idea of messy foliage past its prime. Maybe you’ve been taught that pruning perennials in the fall is the correct way to prepare your garden for next year.
Of course, it's always a good idea to deadhead perennials during the season as their blooms fade. Often this will encourage lots of new blooms for perennials such as salvia and catmint. However, I'm talking about cutting back the entire plant for the year. Do you cut them back before winter or at the end of the winter before new spring growth shows up?
Here’s my secret. Most of my perennials don't get cut back in the fall. I leave pruning perennials until late winter or early spring when winter is coming to an end, and it's warm enough to get outside and garden.
I’ll be honest, by the end of fall I’m tired of tending to the garden. We usually have some great weather in the fall, but it is often short-lived followed by cold and snow.
However, by March, I can’t wait to get out and clean up the garden beds. This is just about the time I can start to see signs of new shoots or new growth.
So, is this a bad thing? I did some research and found out that many well-known gardeners follow my practice of late winter pruning.
Here's What the Experts Say
In this article from The Royal Horticultural Society the writer states, “Cutting back herbaceous perennials during autumn restores order and tidiness to the garden. However, this removes potential winter interest, in the form of height and structure, plus food and habitat sources for wildlife.”
Another article from Purdue University's Horticultural Extension examines exactly this question, “Cut back perennials, now or later?” Here the writer also agrees that there are many benefits of leaving perennials for winter interest and shelter for wildlife. However, she also notes that any diseased or pest ridden plants should be dealt with sooner, rather than later.
Perennials like rudbeckia aka black eyed susan and echinacea or purple coneflowers have attractive seed heads and provide food for the birds so I always leave them until the spring before pruning.
Finally, in this last article from Martha Stewart Living, the writer states, “Perennial plants need to be cut back each year, but when you choose to do it depends on your gardening style.”
When Should You Cut Back Perennials in the Fall?
As mentioned above, I will definitely cut back the peony shown above. The leaves look bad and appear to have a little fungus issue going on. In this case, I will use my clean pruners to cut back all of the stems to the ground.
I'll check for any other plants that have powdery mildew or pest issues and cut them back too.
However my typical routine for any normal, healthy-looking perennial, means waiting until late winter or next spring to prune.