One of the most common questions I get during this time of year is whether to cut back the plants in the garden before winter or not. I try to answer people with an open-ended response so they can determine what is best for their situation. I personally like to leave everything in the garden till spring for various reasons but first, let me go over what should be removed and various benefits of that practice before I support my case on why I like to leave everything.
When it comes to vegetable gardens, even I clear them completely as many items that remain in the vegetable garden can cause a problem the following year. Many of us do not like various insects to reproduce in the soil to return the following season. The eggs that produce the larvae of the cutworm are very damaging to many plants the following year when they try to grow. Nobody wants to promote insects such as potato and squash beetles, as these have no benefits to our plants either.
Oftentimes certain varieties of tomatoes will have diseases that can be passed on from year to year from their leaves that drop to the soil. Over winter these leaves decay in the soil and leave behind any number of viruses and such to spread from one year to the next.
When it comes to perennials in the garden, I am a bit more select, but I always cut back peonies to keep grey mold from manifesting itself. I also cut back other items that may have developed mildew through the growing season for safekeeping. Iris are always cut back as the foliage can tend to rot on the surface tubers in the spring and slow the drying process, often resulting in root rot.
Many people enjoy cleaning out everything so the garden is nice and clean for the winter and ready to go in the spring season. Many will add a mulch layer to protect the plants in the event there is little snow cover during the coldest temperatures. This phenomenon occurred quite a few winters past and caused the demise of many plants.
Now, we will discuss the reasons I leave the perennial garden in place. One of the main reasons I leave everything in place, outside of the things previously mentioned, is to collect the leaves and snow for a blanket insulator over all the plants during our cold and windy period. Without this cover, the ground can freeze deeply, especially in years of dry conditions, and affect the roots beneath. There is no need to add extra mulch in these instances.
Another great reason to leave the product in place is to create a natural habitat for wildlife to feel protected. With all the plants in place, it allows a safe cover for rabbits to burrow and other critters. Many different types of birds will gather in these spots also, not just for protection from the wind, but many of the seed pods offer additional food sources - seeds such as coneflower heads, rudbeckia seeds, Liatris stems and millet, to name just a few. With the introduction of this wildlife, it allows you to watch and enjoy this activity in the garden from inside your warm home.
Leaving everything in place also allows a completely different appearance for your garden during the winter months when things seem so lifeless. Beautiful ornamental grasses wave in the wind making rustling sounds in the air and many of the seed heads from plants such as sedum gather snow caps that add an interesting feature within the garden. Frosty mornings cover each stem and branch to give everything a crisp look and create the best opportunities to hone your photography skills.
The winter landscape is the fourth season in the garden and leaving everything in place is the only way to truly enjoy this time of year. It may be a sleepy period, but the remaining vegetation still creates a unique and stunning scene.
Once spring arrives, you will be able to get into the garden during April and slowly begin removing everything. Stems of the perennials snip off easier as they are now brittle from the cold season. Annuals virtually slide out of the soil as most of their root systems have already begun to decay and it gives you the chance to look closely at the spring garden at hand. It is during these intimate moments in the garden that you begin to make new discoveries along the way with life that is beginning to take place once again in the garden.
Yes, the garden is an intimate setting in many ways; don’t make work out of it but enjoy it for what it is worth through all four seasons. By including the winter season into the picture, maybe the season will move along just a bit faster while you plan for warmer months ahead. For the third year in a row, winter has decided to show its presence early but there is no guarantee it will stay. For the time being, it does give you a glimpse into what the garden will look like in winter. Whether you enjoy it all till spring or clear it now, the choice is yours. I intend to make the most of my garden in all seasons.