Garden Maintenance: Cutting Back Perennials And Wildflowers

garden maintenance, pruning

As much as garden maintenance can be considered one of the less glamorous aspects of our beloved pastime, it can go quicker than you’d think if you gather all of your information in one place. The best news is a handful of perennials and wildflowers shouldn’t be cut back until the early spring, which helps distribute your garden maintenance between the fall and spring.

We’ve compiled a list of perennials and wildflowers with directions on when and how far to cut them back. If you don't see information on a variety you have in your garden, leave a comment below and we’ll add it for you.

Garden Maintenance: Perennials To Cut Back In The Fall

There are quite a few perennials that should be cut back in fall, many of which are prone to disease and require as much air circulation as possible in the garden bed.

Although Butterfly Weed should be cut back in the early spring, remove seed pods in the late fall if you don’t want it to self-seed. Learn how in our blog.

Yarrow can be cut back to about 1” from the ground in the late fall. Again, make sure to remove all debris, weeds and old much from around the plant.

Peonies should be cut back to the ground in the late fall as new growth emerges from the base of the plant in the spring.

It’s worth it to own a nice pair of pruners, or to sharpen your set before cutting back in the fall or spring. It makes things go much quicker (and easier)! 

Coreopsis should be cut back in late fall to about 6-8”, which helps the plant protect its crowns through the winter.

To avoid mildew, cut Bee Balm back to the ground in the fall, remove old stems and clean up mulch to give plants the best air circulation through the winter months.

garden maintenance, sedum and ornamental grasses

Bearded Iris should be cut back to 4-5", while Sedum and Echinacea should be left through the winter. Once you've cut everything back, rake the garden beds to remove debris.

If Overcrowded, Divide And Re-Plant These Perennials In The Fall

Daylilies can be cut back to about 4” in the late fall. Fall is also a great time to divide and re-plant Daylilies if they are overcrowded. Learn how in our blog.

Bearded Iris should be cut back in late fall, in October or November depending on your hardiness zone, once foliage starts to die back. Cut foliage down to 4-5” and clean up all debris and old mulch in the garden bed. Bearded Iris need a clean garden bed to stay disease free. Fall is also a great time to dig up and divide Iris if they are overcrowded. Learn how in our blog.

Cut Hostas back to about 2” in the late fall to reduce the amount of slugs and disease in the plant. Fall is also a great time to divide and re-plant Hostas if they are overcrowded in your beds. Learn how in our blog.

Garden Maintenance: Perennials To Cut Back In The Spring

For a variety of reasons, many perennials should be left up through the winter and cut back in early spring.

Lavender should be cut back in the spring just as new growth is starting to come in. Cut back the plant only by 1/3, which helps to force new growth. Because of this, do not cut your Lavender back until at least the second year it is in your garden, which helps the plants focus on growing healthy roots instead of new leaves.

Leave Sedum through the winter for added interest. In early spring, use sharp pruners to cut stems back within an inch of the soil to encourage new growth.

If you have a variety of garden beds and feel overwhelmed, take on only one garden bed a time.

Cut Milkweed back by 2/3 in the late winter or early spring, before new growth emerges.

Even though Ferns start to look drab in the fall, the mass of brown fronds protects the center of the plant where new fronds will emerge in the spring. Once you see new fronds in the early spring, you can clear away the old fronds by hand, being careful not to break the new shoots.

Spent Astilbe blooms can be cut back once they have died back, but foliage should be left until early spring. Once new growth emerges in early spring, cut the entire plant back to the ground.

garden maintenance, sedum and ornamental grasses
Sedum and Ornamental Grasses can be left up through the winter for added interest and shelter for birds.

Help Wildlife By Leaving These Perennials Up Until Spring

Leave Echinacea seed heads through the winter to help feed birds, especially finches. This also promotes re-seeding. Cut back in early spring.

Black Eyed Susan should also be left standing through the winter to help feed birds and encourage re-seeding. Cut back in early spring.

Ornamental Grasses also provide winter interest in the garden and shelter for birds and other wildlife. Cut back 2/3 of the plant in very early spring.

Garden Maintenance: When To Cut Back Wildflowers

This is one of the most frequent questions we get: when should wildflowers be cut back? We are true advocates for leaving wildflowers up through the winter and mowing down in early spring.

garden maintenance, wildflowers

Wildflower seed heads (like these Zinnia) can add beauty in the winter months. Leave wildflowers up through the winter to help with re-seeding.

If you keep your wildflowers up throughout the winter, they not only provide interest throughout the snowy months, but also give birds a food source and protection. Leave seed heads up through the winter to promote re-seeding and to help your annuals come back the next season.

If your wildflowers somehow got mildew or other disease, remember to rake up and remove the dead foliage after you cut it back in the fall.

If you prefer a more polished look in the garden, or live in an area that won’t allow you to keep wildflowers up through the winter, you can definitely mow them down. If possible, leave the cut seed heads on the ground – the birds can still benefit from them.

In early spring, use pruners or a spring trimmer to cut your wildflowers down to the ground. Rake old growth up and remove to ensure new plants have plenty of direct sunlight.

Are there varieties we haven't mentioned in our blog that you'd like to know about? Please leave a comment below and we'll get back to you!

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