Winter beauty

Leave plants, like sedum and cone flowers, up all winter for visual interest. Otherwise, autumn is the time to clear away plant debris, save seeds and prune to prepare for the next growing season.

It’s fall! Let’s start now to make a successful spring with garden maintenance and pruning.

Annuals and vegetables are easy in the fall because with the cold weather, those plants will die and you can dig them up and pull them out and then put them in the compost pile or throw them away. You can also save seeds from favorite veggies and prepare them for planting next year (that’s a whole article unto itself!) There are also leaves and garden dieback that can be cleaned up to keep the garden tidy.

However, when it comes to perennials and grasses that come back each year – or at least for several years, there are some that need their own kind of care. I’ve been going through some of the plants around my area and I started a list.

Before you start, when cutting and clipping and especially if there is any diseased foliage or mildew, make sure you prepare a cleaning bucket to dunk your clippers in after you cut your plants. Cleaning your clippers often can help reduce risk of spreading disease. A light solution of bleach 10% and water 90% should prevent contamination. I suggest having two clippers so one is soaking while the other is clipping. That way I can keep the clippers in the solution for about 30 minutes at a time and I can keep working.

Here is a list of some plants that need fall love:

Astilbe – Blooms can be cut back when faded but foliage is cut in spring when new growth is beginning. Trim the old foliage to ground in spring as you see that new growth.

Bearded Iris – Cut back in late fall as foliage dies to about 4-5 inches. Clean up old mulch and debris and divide if overcrowded.

Bee Balm – Cut to ground in fall and throw away mildewed leaves, remove old mulch for better circulation in winter. Time to clean those clippers!

Blackberry Lily – Cut back in fall to 2 inches to prevent foliage from collapsing which can cause the crown to rot. Seed pods can be removed so as not to allow the lily to become over abundant.

Butterfly Weed – Remove seed pods in late fall to prevent self-seeding. Pruning for this plant is in spring.

Columbine – Prune down to ground after frost.

Coreopsis – Cut back to about 6 inches in late fall.

Daylilies – Cut back to 3-4 inches in late fall and divide if they are overcrowded.

Ground Clematis – After frost this will collapse and can be cut to the ground as it blooms on new growth in the spring.

Hosta – cut back to 2 inches in late fall. Cut old stalks and divide or replant if overcrowded.

Hydrangea – This plant is generally cut in the spring. The type of cuts, and when, depend on whether the plant blooms on old or new wood. Here’s a good article from Purdue Extension that will help you on your way.

Lavender – Prune back about 1/3 in fall to assist air flow and remove any flower stalks.

Peonies – Cut back to ground in late fall. Throw away any of those moldy leaves and soak those clippers!

Russian Sage – Can be cut down to 6 inches to 8 inches in the fall after a strong frost and it has gone dormant. This can also be done in the spring if you want to leave it up for interest.

Yarrow – Cut to about 1 inch above ground in late fall. Remove all old mulch debris from around the base of plant to the basal leaf. The basal leaf are leaves that are at the lowest part of the stem.

Birds and other wildlife appreciate having food and shelter in the winter so if your aesthetic allows for it, leave Echinacea (Coneflowers), Rudbeckia (Black Eyed Susan), and ornamental grasses of all sorts to stand in the winter. This promotes re-seeding and also adds winter interest. These can be cut back in early spring and the ornamental grasses can be cut by two thirds and divided if necessary.


Wildflowers can be left all winter (if possible) and then mow in the early spring. These are excellent sources of food and shelter for wildlife and winter interest for us humans. Waiting gives the seed heads time to re-seed. Most wildflower seed mixes contain annual, biennial and perennial forbes (or herbaceous flowering plant that are not a grass or sedge). Leaving the seed heads assures the annuals have time to set themselves up for spring. A weedwhacker or string trimmer can cut the wildflowers down in the early spring. Be sure to gather most of the debris so the new growth can have full advantage of the spring sun.

Finally, like the wildflowers, if there is no disease or mold and if the plant doesn’t collapse with the frost, causing rot, you can leave plants for wildlife and winter interest to stay up all winter. If left, you can trim back the old growth in very early spring. Attached is an article from Purdue Extension and Rosie Lerner to encourage just that.

And if you’re like me, just cleaning up the beds, prepping my vegetable gardens for next year and planting bulbs is more than enough. I’m going to let a few of my perennials stay out and wait for frost: I am one of those humans that likes winter interest.

Cecilie Keenan is a Purdue Master Gardener in Noble County and the author of The Noble Gardener. Contact her at for information on gardening topics.

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