cut to be kind

In speaking with homeowners about their gardens, there seems to be an almost universal fear of pruning that inhibits two of the most basic maintenance tasks one must attend to in the garden: cutting back and deadheading. Unfortunately, this often results in a garden that is a tangle of overgrown, leggy plants with few blooms on too-tall stalks.Of course, as with most gardening chores, some advance knowledge of both the task at hand and your particular plants will go a long way toward alleviating anxiety and achieving successful results.

Cutting back – that is, cutting the entire plant down by one half to one third – can reduce the need for staking of later-blooming and taller perennials such as sedum “Autumn Joy”, chrysanthemum and fall-blooming asters. Late-season plants spend most of the summer growing, and by August or September have gotten too tall and will flop over if not staked. In addition, they will often produce only a few blooms atop their too-tall stalks, resulting in a somewhat ungainly appearance. By cutting back the entire plant by one half to one third sometime in June it will branch out and develop more (if somewhat smaller) buds and flowers. In addition, the plant will be sturdier and produce a more attractive shape that will be less likely to flop. It is important to know your plants before starting, as some plants will not bloom at all in the season they are pruned.

You can extend the blooming cycle of many perennials if you deadhead. This means cutting off spent flowers down to the next bud or flower (if you do not see a flower, cut down to the next set of leaves). By deadheading plants such as purple coneflower and shasta daisy they will continue to produce flowers instead of shutting down and setting seed for the following season. Deadheading also minimizes the number of seeds dropped into the garden, which can cause some plants to spread too rapidly. Lastly, deadheading can improve the appearance of most perennials and will often result in a second surge of blooms (for shrubbier plants with many small flowers such as nepeta and coreopsis, you can cut the entire plant back by half with hedge shears after the initial blooming is finished).

Again, knowing which plants will respond best to this procedure will yield the most successful results. There are many plants, such as allium and astilbe, that need not be deadheaded as they will not produce more blooms. The seedheads of these plants often provide interest in the garden even after blooming is finished and can provide a valuable food source for birds during the winter months.

These are just some guidelines to get you started – research the plants in your garden and then experiment to see what works best for you. Trial and error will let you know which of your plants are served well by some judicious pruning, and which are better left alone.

“tending your garden” is reprinted with the permission of River Journal Inc., 914.631.7021
© 2006 sheri silver –