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This is a challenging time in the garden for me. We’ve not yet had a frost, so although things are looking a little ragged, there’s nothing that’s dead and looking terrible. Which means I’m faced with the conundrum of going against my gardener’s gut reaction to do everything I can to keep plants looking good and the practical voice in my head reminding me that there is a lot of work to be done in the garden before the snow flies.

And of course, the lovely fall weather we’ve been having makes it all that much more difficult. Because when it turns, it’s going to turn quickly. And even a hardy Wisconsin gardener like myself doesn’t really relish being in the garden with winter gloves on.

The Calamintha ‘Montrose White’ in the foreground of this photo has finished flowering, but it still looks good otherwise. It will be difficult to cut it back at this point, but there’s so much to be done in the garden. 

I was formulating a plan of attack for the fall garden chores the other night at 4 a.m. as I stood in the back yard begging the newest member of the family to pleeeeaaaase go to the bathroom. We got a 3-month-old Newfoundland puppy last weekend so we are in the throes of potty training, which is far more tedious than I had remembered. Anyway, I was noticing that other than a bit of flopping here and there, most of the perennials are looking fine and it seems a little sad to be planning to go in there and hack things back.

I know this picture is blurry but little Dorothy is in the perpetual motion stage of life so it could be awhile before she sits still enough for a good picture.

There are a lot of different ideas about cutting back perennials in fall, and from what I’ve read I believe it probably is better for the health of the plants to let them stand for winter. But sometimes the health of the gardener is more important that the health of the garden (which probably will be OK no matter what), and in my case I know that spring is so busy that anything I can do in fall to decrease the spring workload is well worth doing.

So, even though things are still green, I think this weekend I’ll start dismantling beds one by one. I’ll cut back things like Nepeta, but I will leave Sedums and Echinacea standing for winter interest. Dahlias, of course, have several more weeks in the garden. Not only are they still flowering, they need to be killed off by a good frost before you can dig them for storage.

As I go through, bed by bed, I’ll also pull as many weeds as I, again so it’s one less thing to do in spring. In a few weeks, when we’re drowning in fallen leaves, I’ll run them through the chipper-shredder and create a lovely mulch for my beds. The areas that I mulched with chopped leaves last fall had noticeably fewer weeds in spring, so that’s another investment in my spring time.

Still, cutting back plants that still look OK is hard to do. But the knowledge that it will be far more tolerable a job at 60 degrees than at 35 degrees is enough for me to get over it.

10 Responses

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  3. I certainly understand your dilemma about cutting back on your plants this year especially when they are still looking decent. I live in northeast Wisconsin and experiencing the same lovely warm weather so the urgency to get going and put my flower beds to rest hasn't been one of my top priorities. But I did start today because as you said…once the cold comes that is that! I too have read extensively about leaving your beds alone and clean the following spring but most people I've talked to agree with you that starting with a cleaned out bed for spring makes more sense and discourages diseases that might linger around and harm the plants. You also seem to be on the same page as I am about the marvelous properties of leaf mulch. Such good stuff and thank you for sharing that tip because we shouldn't over look free material that improves the soil and keeps weeds down. Love your blog and look forward to your next posting especially since your a fellow Wisconsin gardener….Cheers!

  4. Just came in for a break from doing clean up. But we're hosting that WHPS hardscaping workshop tomorrow, so I am not cutting back as much as a probably should. Looks like temps are going to take a dive next week. Your garden looks much better than mine at this moment.

  5. OH NO!? I grew Dahlias this year for the first time and I've done my last bit of dirty work to put all to bed for winter BUT we too near the shore in Massachusetts have yet to have a frost. So what do I do with my dahlia bulbs or tubers?

  6. What I tend to do is cut everything back on those rare (but increasingly common) early spring days in March and April that are nice enough and sunny enough to get out there and be back in the garden. That way they get to stand for winter and give me some interest, but are cut back well before actual real Spring activity takes over, and the gardener itching to get back in the garden gets a bit of a much needed dirt fix.

  7. What a little darling Dorothy. Gosh, makes me want to pick her up and give her a good cuddling. I bet she is too wiggly for that right now. You must have infinite patience. I don't know if I could deal with a puppy anymore. So much work, but worth it.
    I too have been working in the garden. Everything here is so darned dry I don't think it hurts cutting back early. Maybe the roots will be able to absorb the little bit of moisture that falls next time.
    Having a puppy is a good excuse to be out in the garden. 🙂

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