Fall Garden Cleanup: Don't Prune These...Leave 'Em Standing

Leave Ornamental Grass standing in the fall for winter interest.

Fall is well underway and many of us are focused on getting our gardens and landscapes ready for their winter rest. Here is some guidance as to which plants need to be cut back in fall or winter and which should be left standing until spring.

Maintaining Our Gardens To Maximize Their Value as Habitat

As I have said many times, with the effects of climate change already impacting our lives, we no longer have the luxury of gardening just for beauty. We must also plant and care for our landscapes to benefit the creatures that share our environment by providing habitat with our plant choices and maintenance methods. Here are some tips that will help to make your garden and landscape more "habitat friendly."

Panicum virgatum 'North Wind' in fall.

Gold Plate Yarrow (Achillea) with Muhly Grass (Muhlebergia) in fall.

Deciduous Shrubs and Trees: Winter is an ideal time for pruning woody plants that lose their leaves (deciduous) because they are dormant.

  • Most fruit, flowering and shade trees all benefit from winter pruning to remove crossed branches, gently shape their branch structure and, with shade trees, maintaining strong non-forked leaders.
  • But don't shear the branches of spring flowering shrubs (Forsythia, Lilac, New Mexico Privet, Spirea, Flowering Quince and others), as this will remove the old wood (last year's growth) that produces flowers in the spring.
  • Summer blooming shrubs like Russian Sage (Perovskia), Blue Mist Spirea (Caryopteris) and Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii and hybrids) should be left untrimmed over the winter months.
  • Russian Sage should be cut back hard in mid-spring, leaving stems 12-15" tall. This should be done every spring to keep them blooming heavily.
  • Blue Mist Spirea and Buddleia should be cut back by 1/3 to 1/2 of their height every third year (NOT annually) to re-invigorate the shrubs and encourage blooming.

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    Ornamental Grasses: Leave these grasses standing over the winter months.

  • Their foliage and seed heads offer us winter beauty when the low angled winter sunshine illuminates them.
  • Wait until mid-spring to cut grasses back, as many beneficial insects use these grasses to provide protection for overwintering egg masses, larvae, and adult forms. This gives the insects time for their eggs to hatch and their larvae to change into adults.
  • Birds will also utilize these standing grasses as sources for seed and winter shelter. Ground birds, like quail, will use large ornamental grasses for winter protection.
  • Warm season grasses include Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium), Big Bluestem (Andropogon), 'Blonde Ambition' Blue Grama (Bouteloua), Muhly (Muhlenbergia), Prairie Switchgrass (Panicum), Chinese Maidenhair Grass (Miscanthus), Giant Sacatoon (Sporobolus wrightii) and others. They should be cut back in mid-spring.
  • Cool season grasses, like Blue Avena Grass (Helictotrichon), Fescue grass (Festuca), Silky thread Grass (Nassella) and 'Karl Foerster' Feather Reed grass (Calamagrostis) have evergreen foliage that should not be cut to the ground. Instead vigorously "comb out" dead leaves with gloved hands and clip off the dead leaf tips. In early spring, clip off old seed head stalks as far down into the foliage as possible to leave room for late spring flowers.
  • If the grass plant has a ring of living leaves with a dead center, it's time to divide the grasses to re-invigorate them. (This is necessary once every three to five years depending on the species and growing conditions.)

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Perennials: Also leave perennials standing as well.

  • These plants will often provide the same shelter to beneficial insects as the ornamental grasses.
  • Additionally, species with ornamental seed heads such as Yarrow (Achillea), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea), Tall Stonecrop (Sedum) and others with flat or cone-shaped dried flowers, add to the garden's winter beauty.
  • Seed bearing perennials such as Purple Coneflower (Echinacea), Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium), Hummingbird Mint (Agastache), Lavender (Lavandula), perennial Sunflower (Helianthus) and others provide valuable winter food for songbirds.
  • Perennials that are living at the edge of their cold hardiness are more cold hardy when their stems are left standing over the winter. So when native Sage (Salvia), Hummingbird Mint (Agastache), Hummingbird Trumpet (Zauschneria) are planted in USDA zones 5 & 6, this will help them survive the winter cold. This is especially true for young plants (in the ground one to two growing seasons).
  • Wait until mid-spring to cut back perennials, unless the perennial plants are exhibiting some summer/fall disease or are infested with injurious insects. In these instances, these damaged plants should be cut back.

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Leaves: Leaves are a valuable resource for soil building and mulching. Don't just throw them away.

  • They should be raked from lawns, but utilized elsewhere in the landscape where they can be used as mulch under trees, shrubs and evergreens. Or rake them and put them through a shredder, so you can mulch perennial beds and vegetable gardens with the chopped-up foliage.
  • In wetter climates, it's best not to leave them on top of your untrimmed perennials and other flower beds as they will cause problems with fungus and rot. Instead, chop 'em up and use them as mulch to improve your soil.
  • Red Happiness Agastache with Sipa gigantea and Chilopsis in seed.

Grass Meadows and Lawns:

  • Native (Buffalo and Blue Grama Grass) and Dog Tuff lawns should be given a last mowing in late Oct. But mow the grass high, leaving it about 4" tall. Never scalp the lawn in the fall as this weakens it and leaves the stems vulnerable to damage from cold and dry conditions.
  • Meadows, like ornamental grasses and perennials, should also be left standing over the winter. Mow with the mower deck set high in mid-spring.
Gold Plate Yarrow (Achillea) with Muhly Grass (Muhlebergia) in fall.

Gold Plate Yarrow (Achillea) with Muhly Grass (Muhlebergia) in fall.

Text and Photos by Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman.

© All articles are copyrighted by High Country Gardens. Republishing an entire High Country Gardens blog post or article is prohibited without written permission. Please feel free to share a short excerpt with a link back to the article on social media websites, such as Facebook and Pinterest.

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15 thoughts on “Fall Garden Cleanup: Don't Prune These...Leave 'Em Standing”

  • Sheri Hogle
    Sheri Hogle 11/15/17 at 5:28 am

    Very timely article. It answered my questions about what and when to trim, while giving me some ideas about additions to next year's garden. I am a long time customer of High Country Gardens and have never been disappointed in your plants nor advice.
    Thank you,
    Sheri Hogle
    Spring City, Utah

  • C Beck

    Excellent article! I forwarded to a few gardening buddies. Thank you.

  • Chanitele

    I had a neighbor who had a giant batch of Pampas grass. And every year, maybe spring, he would cut it down and light it on fire. Do you know what the purpose of that was? It always came back beautifully. Now there are new neighbors who just mowed it down.

    • Gabi

      Although it’s not our recommended method, some folks do burn warm-season ornamental grasses instead of simply pruning by cutting off the dead foliage. Both methods have the same result, although many find cutting back by hand or with pruners much safer, and easier.

  • Lisa Wojciechowski

    Thanks for the helpful articles here re pruning in fall, leaves as cover and other tips for gardening,

  • Nancy Cobb
    Nancy Cobb 11/15/17 at 8:39 am

    Thanks for this very informative article on pruning/cutting back plants in the fall!!!!

  • Patricia Mische
    Patricia Mische 11/15/17 at 12:16 pm

    Thank you for sharing this very helpful article. I plan to print and save it for future reference when faced by a question whether or not and when to prune.

  • Gerry Morgan
    Gerry Morgan 11/16/17 at 3:25 am

    Glad I took the time to read all the hints on proper pruning for fall. It was very informative. Wish I had read it earlier, then I wouldn't have cut back those marginal salvias I grow up in the mountains of North Carolina.

  • Cynthia Caton
    Cynthia Caton 11/16/17 at 12:40 pm

    Good article about what to and what not to prune in the fall or spring. When and how do you recommend pruning climbing honeysuckle? My plants did great early on this year but looked pretty sad in late summer (yellow leaves and leaves fell off). Thanks.

    • Gabi

      Great question! I would be more than happy to help – it does depend on specifically what type of climbing honeysuckle you have. If it flowers early in the season, then it should be pruned about 1/3 after flowering. If instead, it flowers on the current seasons growth, then the only pruning needed is to remove anything weak, damaged, or overgrown.

  • Rosemarie Foltz
    Rosemarie Foltz 11/17/17 at 4:24 am

    Dear David,
    Thank you for this article.
    I have practiced this way for 45 years but the landscaping industry wants the yards to look "clean" for the winter. Thankfully, I don't live in an HOA anymore and can do the right thing for Mother Nature!
    My plantings are for Birds, Bees, Butterflies and other creatures.

  • Barbara Larime

    Love your website but wish you would show the zones a plant is hardy in on the initial screen so I don't have to keep opening each individual plant to find out.

    • Gabi

      Hi Barbara! Thank you for your kind words, and for your feedback regarding our site. I am more than happy to pass your feedback to the team regarding the accessibility of zones within our product information. I did want to let you know that we do have a filter tool on the left on our general product pages which can filter the results by zone. Doing this will prevent any out-of-zone items from appearing on your product list. There are also a handful of other things that can be filtered that make it a great tool when browsing our website. If there are specific soil conditions in your area, or specific advantages you are seeking for your garden, this tool will filter the results to show only the products that qualify.

  • Lynne Butcher
    Lynne Butcher 12/01/17 at 2:13 am

    Wonderful and timely article. We need this awareness as we deal with climate change and try to help all creatures do the same.

  • Sean Mahan

    Valuable tips, I'll put them to practice, really wanna make the best out of my garden!

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