Fall clean-up – to chop or not to chop

The Winter Cut

When fall arrives, many home gardeners and landscapers rush to get the garden ready for winter. Among the many jobs that need to be done to ‘put the garden to bed for winter’  is the cutting back of herbaceous perennial plants (plants that are non-woody, and that die-back in the fall, reappearing the following spring).This cutting back is most often done to maintain a clean and neat appearance in the garden. But if you can bear a slightly less pristine wintertime garden, it may be worth putting the shears down until spring.

Not to Chop – The Upside

There are several benefits to delaying the cutting back of perennials until early spring.

Food and Shelter for Wildlife     Birds enjoy harvesting ripe seeds from perennials and annuals. Perennials with seedheads that might otherwise have been removed, become a great food source for birds when food is scarce in winter.Worms tend to enjoy hanging out in decaying plant material that has been left in a garden bed; another valuable food source for birds in winter.

In the picture below (at City Farmer, The Vancouver Compost Demonstration Garden in Kitsilano) the flowerheads of Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan) are being enjoyed by an American Sparrow.


In addition to providing food, decaying stems and leaves can provide valuable winter shelter for a range of creatures.

Winter Interest in the Garden    Winter interest in the garden can easily be overlooked when creating garden beds for spring or summer colour. But when all the flowers have faded and the display of fall leaves has passed, perennials can provide architectural interest throughout the winter months.

Return Energy to Plant Roots    Plant roots send energy  (food) to the flowers, fruit and leaves of the plant throughout the spring and summer growing season. As summer ends, that energy is returned to the roots to keep the plant healthy over winter and ready to reemerge in the spring. If stems are cut back too early, the plant does not have a chance to return that energy to the roots.

When to Chop

There are many perennials that start to break down as the rain starts and temperatures cool, quickly going from upright to a messy,slumping heap. It’s a good idea to cut down these perennials. Hostas, for instance,  will quickly start to break down and lie on top of the crown of the plant over winter. This wet, slimy layer can encourage crown rot ( a fungal disease in soil,spread most easily in wet conditions). The leaves and stems of plants that become wet and slimy can be cut back as they start to break down, and added to the compost bin as a nitrogen source. If a tender new crown is emerging it can be protected with a blanket of fallen leaves.

‘Chop and Drop’ Method and Self-Composting – The Medium Ground

One important method used in permaculture is chop and drop mulching. In this method, plants are chopped and left on the soil right where the plant is growing. In permaculure, these plants tend to be ‘cover crops’ which have been grown specifically for the nutrients they add back to the soil. Here’s an interesting article on the basics of the Chop and Drop method.

In her fantastic Handbook of Northwest Gardening, Ann Lovejoy describes how she lets perennials self-compost in her Seattle garden.

“Instead of spending a lot of time in fall tidying up the beds and borders, I just remove anything that looks unhealthy or that might smother a neighbour. Any plant that has enough natural architecture to stand up for itself gets to spend as much of the winter upright as possible. 

When plants start to slump or decay, I clean up their act…I simply clip what’s left into small pieces. I use my pruning shears to cut stalks and stems into tidbits…..The bits begin to compost.

The scuffling birds mix and remix the raw compost for me, so it recycles into real compost pretty fast. By spring, the clipped bits have become a nutritious breakfast for thousands of tiny soil organisms that in turn feed my plants.” 


So this fall, aim to cut back your perennials a bit more judiciously than you may have done in the past,  and your garden, and surrounding wildlife, will reap the rewards.

Want to read more? Here’s an interesting article by Alys Flowers in the UK’s guardian newspaper.

Need help with your fall clean-up? Or do you want us to design a wildlife garden?  Contact us at Growing in the Garden.

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