by Judy Kautz, OSU Extension Master Gardener
We’ve had our first freeze and now we have a decision to make. As gardeners, we like to keep our yards cleaned up and cleared of debris, especially after our first frost and, especially after plants have turned brown and shriveled. But, is it better to wait until spring to clean up the yard or do it now?
There are a number of good reasons to let the debris remain until spring. First, if you have perennials that are evergreen, do not cut them; leaving them adds extra nutrition they get through their leaves. Also, plants like sedum, even though their blooms are spent, offer winter interest to your garden, especially if we have a dusting of snow. Winter grasses can look lovely after a heavy morning frost.
Ornamental grasses are best left through the winter as they provide interest in the garden.
Foliage left on your plants also provides natural protection from the winter cold; stems and crowns of plants can catch blowing leaves, which can add more insulation. Additionally, plants with hollow stems like salvia, are unusual; if the stems are cut, winter moisture can make its way to the crown, damaging the plant or even killing it.
If you want to save time and energy, wait until spring to remove withered leaves on plants like daylilies. It is much easier to apply a gentle tug to remove leaves instead of using pruners! However, iris plants do benefit from giving their leaves a trim in the fall; simply cut the leaves in a fan shape, leaving about 4-6 inches on the leaves.
If you are a bird or wildlife lover, then leaving spent plants through the winter provides great benefit to these creatures. Birds love the seeds from Black-eyed Susans, coneflowers and ornamental grasses. The finches, particularly, have enjoyed the buffet in my yard provided by the standing phlox seed heads this year. Grasses and plant debris also offer shelter to birds and small critters as the weather turns colder.
Finches love to feast on the seedheads of the black-eyed Susan in winter.
Now that we’ve talked about why you should wait until spring to tend your spent perennials, there are still some very good reasons to do some fall clean-up. Disease prevention is the best reason; be sure to discard rather than compost any plant material suspected of being infested by disease or insect pests. Plants like bearded iris can harbor iris borers and fungal disease if they are not pruned up before winter.
If you want to remove leaves, make quick work of a yard full of leaves with a sturdy piece of cardboard. Using it like a snow shovel, push a wide swath of new fallen leaves into piles. Do a fast pass across the lawn every day or two before leaves pack down or get rained on to keep them all together until you have a chance to move them to the compost pile.
Cardboard used like a shovel works great to gather up leaves in your yard until you can get them to compost pile.
If you don’t want plants that self-sow like coneflower, blanket flower, black-eyed Susan, or globe thistle to reseed, be sure to cut them back in the fall before their seed heads mature. Keep in mind, however, that these very same plants have seeds that attract birds to your yard. If you enjoy bird watching in your yard in the winter, save this task until spring!
Unattractive foliage is probably one of the most compelling reasons to clean up your plant debris in the fall. Who wants to look at black or slimy leaves after a frost? There are some plants that are particularly bad for this: ligularia and Japanese anemones are some of the worst offenders, so prune up or remove this type of foliage.
For a gardener, there is always something that can be done in your yard; all our landscapes need some work in the fall and in the spring, because a gardener’s work is never done!
Welcome to Dishing the Garden Dirt!