Our first heavy frost came Wednesday night into Thursday morning, with a low in the 20s overnight. We were greeted with a sparkling white lawn on Thursday morning and obvious frost kill on the ginger lilies and Lantana. The garden does, indeed, look like a very different place than it did early in the week. In fact, there was a distinct “seedy” air to it when friends visited yesterday to adopt a half dozen Mahonia seedlings.
Looking around the garden one might wonder where to even begin with the clean up.
And I would ask, what needs to be cleaned up, and why? Since the garden is a wild place, and is designed to shelter birds and other small creatures, we tend to look more to maintaining the balance of the garden than to pure aesthetics.
Our goal is to let every bit be used, nothing thrown away, so much as we are able. We try to allow one season’s growth to nurture the next.
With that in mind, here is an overview of what we will do, and not do, over the next three months.
We push the limits of hardiness by growing ginger lilies and Lantana here as perennials. Technically, they aren’t hardy to zone 7, and in an especially cold winter, might not be. We have found that leaving the plants in place after frost kills back the foliage helps them survive winter. Although not beautiful, the dying leaves and stems provide insulation to the roots and so increases the chances of them living through the winter.
The ginger lilies will collapse after another few cold nights, fall to the ground, and provide a thick mulch; along with the leaves falling from the trees. I’ll move this around so the rose roots are also mulched and simply let it be until late January or early February. On a warmish day I’ll cut and remove the stalks, exposing the growth tips of next summer’s lilies; dig the rhizomes growing forward into the roses, and vacuum out the accumulated leaves from the surrounding trees. The roses will get pruned back and the entire bed will get a fresh cover of compost. I’ve already vacuumed and shredded leaves from this bed once this week, but its hard to tell that now.
The Lantana have grown into large woody shrubs over the summer. The largest are over 6′ tall now. They were in full bloom when the frost came, and so are still covered in flowers and berries. This is a favorite spot of our songbirds who appreciate the ready food supply and the dense shelter of the Lantana. We’ll leave these in place, just as they are, until at least March.
No, the Lantana aren’t pretty anymore. I suppose we could string white lights over them for the holidays, but we’ve never done that. By patiently leaving them in place through winter and into early spring we’ll protect the roots and have a better chance of enjoying them again next summer. When the time comes to trim them back, we’ll cut them to 6″-12″, depending on the plant, and remove all of the old leaves and branches from the bed.
I generally set Violas into this bed as I remove them from pots during spring planting. They’ll live here for another few weeks, and then die off as the Lantana fills in again. This bed will also get a thick covering of fresh compost, some Rose Tone, and general re-working in March. Patience is required with Lantana because they normally don’t show new growth until late April or May.
Roses have not died back with the frost. We still have both leaves and buds. They may even bloom some more over the next few weeks. Trimming roses always stimulates growth, and so it is important to wait until early spring to prune them. Hard pruning now could kill the plant if tender new growth dies off in a hard freeze. Deadheading spent blooms is even optional this time of year. Of course, in our climate, roses will continue sending out new growth over the next few months with only a short break in late December and early January. I’ll wait until February to prune them, and will begin giving Rose Tone and Epson salts by early March.
Hardy perennials like Peonies, Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Iris, Hibiscus, and Chrysanthemum are often the first targets for fall garden clean up. Browned foliage is simply cut off near the ground, tossed into a trash bag, and “Voila”, the garden looks much neater.
That is certainly one approach, but isn’t mine.
Peony leaves are definitely unsightly now. Since the flowers bloomed in May, they haven’t looked good for a while. The frost finished them off, and the foliage definitely needs to get cut back before spring growth begins.
Peony crowns don’t need insulation from their own leaves, and leaving them in place can certainly encourage disease. This is the first foliage I’ll cut on the next warm day. I don’t bag such trimmings and add them to the trash pick up, but neither do I add it to a compost pile. We’ll throw these trimmings into the ravine, away from our perennial beds, along with other old foliage.
The Iris are still blooming, and their rhizomes will continue to grow all winter. Dead leaves and finished stalks may be removed, but it is too late in the season to dig or divide the plants.
Chrysanthemums are just finishing. Spent flowers should be deadheaded, and in fact the plants can be cut back after the leaves are killed by frost. If protected, new buds can still open in the weeks ahead. Any new, potted chrysanthemums should be planted as soon as possible if you intend to keep them as perennials. Otherwise, add them to the compost pile.
Echinacea finished flowering weeks ago. Their seeds are loved by goldfinches and other birds. They can be left standing in the garden deep into winter. They are sculptural, attractive to some, and definitely appreciated by the birds.
The same is true of any Hibiscus or Rudbeckia seed pods still standing. They can be left in place until March or April if you wish. Collect seeds to broadcast in areas you would like new plants, or leave them to the birds. You might even cut some Echinacea or Hibiscus to use in winter wreathes, pots, or arrangements. It can be sprayed gold to add a little sparkle, if you wish.
Other perennials, like lambs ears, daisies, Rosemary, Sage, Lavender, and other herbs will stay green through most, or all of the winter.
I’ll deadhead the daisies, but leave the foliage standing until new growth appears in spring. Herbs should have already been harvested and trimmed. What is left can be lightly harvested all winter, or simply left alone.
Hydrangea blossoms dry easily. You can collect them now for a fall arrangement. Already dry blossoms can be sprayed gold or used as is in wreathes and winter arrangements. There is no value to the plant in leaving them, and in fact they just look worse as the season progresses. And, they don’t harbor any seeds for the birds.When you trim them, be careful to cut above where new buds are forming so you don’t prune off next year’s blossoms.
Rose of Sharon is covered in little dry seed pods at present. These can be left as an important food source for the birds as long as you wish. I generally prune back Rose of Sharon in early spring. Most need to be thinned and shaped before new growth begins. Since this shrub blooms on new wood, pruning only increases the following season’s bloom. Althea tend to be tender sometimes, and may die for no apparent reasons. So I don’t cut them, leaving wounds exposed, until after the worst winter weather has passed.
Buddleia, butterfly bush, should also be left alone until early spring. Not only is it covered in seeds, but it will have a greater chance of survival if left unpruned until early spring. Cut back hard in February, almost to the ground, as it blooms each year on new growth.
Camellias, as evergreens, are in their glory at the moment. Many are either blooming now or preparing to bloom. They enjoy a mulch of chopped leaves, so mulch freely as yard clean up progresses. Their main need at the moment is protection from grazing deer. Deer love the flower buds and will even eat their leaves. I have sprayed mine with Plant Skydd multiple times, and will continue to do so.
Another concern is with damage done by bucks during “rutting season” in autumn. They go a little crazy during their mating season, and rub their antlers against trees and shrubs. The damage to this little magnolia happened last night.
I have no idea why a buck chose to damage this particular tree, since it’s small, pliable, and not a favorite to eat. But, he did. Despite hours and hours spent this week reinforcing deer fences and protecting individual plants, somehow a buck got in and stripped the bark down much of the Magnolia’s trunk. I taped up one of the branches left hanging, and will hope for healing. This Magnolia is special to us as our neighbor gave it to us. Ironically, I sprayed Plant Skydd, even on this Magnolia, earlier this week.
Figs are also losing their leaves now.
The plants are covered in buds for next season’s growth. Although they need winter protection further north, the figs seem to overwinter very well here with no particular care. Other than gathering their leaves, and possibly adding some compost or shredded leaf mulch around the roots, they will make it through winter just fine.
Hollies, Pyracantha, Cedar, Forsythia, Viburnum, and other shrubs won’t need any particular care over the next several moths. All will appreciate shredded leaves mulched over their roots. Forsythia still have their leaves, but I noticed a few yellow blossoms on some of our shrubs yesterday. They normally bloom in February, so this November bloom is a mystery…
Annual flowers and herbs are past their season now. Unless they are covered in ripe seeds, like the Basil, there is no reason to leave them any longer. Clip at the soil line, leaving the roots to enrich the soil.
Some annuals, like Cleome reseed freely and can become invasive. These should definitely be removed. Others, like this basil, will feed many hungry birds.
But it doesn’t have to be here. This whole plant can be removed in the interest if tidiness and thrown into the ravine, where the birds will still enjoy the seeds. Seeds should never be added to a compost pile, for obvious reasons.
Living in a forest, we have leaves everywhere at the moment. They are still falling. Some of our neighbors are so concerned with the leaves that we hear their blowers running daily. In fact, we shake our head in disbelief at neighbors out blowing leaves off their walk or driveway on a windy day, with leaves continuing to fall all around them.
It must be a deeply held cultural fetish to manicure the lawn and remove every fallen leaf; a concern we don’t share. And so we have made only small efforts so far to sweep the porches and steps, clear the driveway, and remove leaves from newly planted Violas.
When most of the leaves have fallen, we’ll use a combination of broom, lawn mower and our leaf blower/bagger to tidy up around the house. We do our best to maintain the peace and quiet by using hand tools, like a rake, when possible.
Wet leaves underfoot are definitely a safety hazard, especially when they freeze. And wet leaves on masonry do bad things to steps and porches. Our reality, living among deciduous trees, is that leaves blow around from place to place all winter long. We accept them and appreciate the good things they do for the garden.
Leaves are extremely important for building good soil. As they decompose they release many important nutrients to the soil, feed earthworms and other soil dwelling creatures, insulate the ground, and hold moisture. We either shred the leaves with the lawn mower, allowing them to mix with the grass clippings for speedier decomposition, or suck them up with our blower. In both cases we catch them in the appliance’s bag, and pour them out around shrubs where the mulch is needed. Leaves are far too valuable to an organic gardener to bag and throw away. Carbon and nitrogen, along with many minerals, accumulate in the leaves throughout the summer. These are released and enrich the soil as the leaves decompose. When earthworms feed on the leaves, even more of their nutrient content is made available to feed other plants.
Shredded leaves are an important ingredient for new hugelkultur beds and for compost piles.
Any spot where you plan to plant in spring can be covered in a layer of shredded leaves now. First lay down cardboard, grocery bags, or sheets of newspaper in new areas to kill off any grass or weeds over the winter, pour on the shredded leaves, and then water the pile to keep the leaves from blowing away. This method is called “sheet composting”. Throughout winter add coffee grounds, tea bags, vegetable scraps, rinsed egg shells, and used potting soil under the leaves. Top this mound off with a few inches of topsoil or finished compost in spring, and plant directly into this new bed.
So work done in the garden, now that we’ve had our first frost, will focus on conserving our resources and preparing for the coming season. As we clean up what remains from this year’s growth, we will provide protection from winter’s cold, allow food and shelter for our birds to remain in place, build the soil, and prepare our beds for the coming season. Recycling nature’s gifts enriches the garden, and makes it more beautiful and abundant with each passing year.
All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013
“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.
Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people. ”
Franklin D. Roosevelt