The Day of the Giant Brown Stalky Things

It was late October just about ten years ago, when my younger son looked at me with considerable exasperation and asked, “Dad, why do we have the only house with giant brown stalky things in the front yard?”

This is as good as any introduction to the issue of autumn garden clean-up. More specifically, is it better to cut back the dead stems of your perennials now or wait until spring?

There’s a lot to be said for not tidying up too early. Some perennials, such as upright grasses, stay attractive through winter. Seedheads of plants like Rudbeckias and Echinaceas provide food for birds, and many desirable insects overwinter in stems and garden debris. In addition, dead plant material provides winter insulation for perennial roots.

Some people have strong opinions in this regard. The famous Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf wrote that a thorough fall cleanup in the perennial border was “unnecessary and destructive.”

The Rudbeckias and Echinaceas are done, but the Nepeta is still reblooming.

However, even if you have no regard for the embarrassment you inflict on your teenage children, there are some downsides to leaving everything up until spring.

In my opinion, it is extremely easy to overstate the attractiveness of most perennials during winter. Grasses, sure. Coneflowers, maybe. Most other perennials, not so much. This is especially true of the really big plants some of us like to grow – the Cup Plants (Silphium perfoliatum), Joe Pye Weeds (Eupatorium sp.), and Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.) that add majesty and color to the late summer garden, but that have also made the phrase “giant brown stalky thing” a byword in our family.

Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) in its pre-brown stalky phase.

The other practical consideration for me is that Spring is a very busy period at work, and so leaving all of the clean up until then can create a difficult time squeeze for me.

So I spent a few hours this weekend cutting back the dead stems of my really tall plants. The birds won’t miss them, since almost all the seeds were already gone by then. I cut the stems into 6-12″ lengths and either let them lie in the flower bed or throw them under the shrubs like mulch. I also removed all the bamboo and metal stakes, including the 10′ rebar I use for the Cup Plant and Joe Pye Weed. The grasses, asters, coneflowers, and lower-growing plants I pretty much leave until spring.

So until then, there will be only mid-sized brown stalky things. That’s OK, though, the kids don’t live at home any more.

So how about you? Do you clean up in fall or spring – or some of each?

24 Comments on “The Day of the Giant Brown Stalky Things

  1. Hi Jason! You made me smile too! Lucky me I don’t have children that remind me how many giant brown stalky things I grow but I have some friends that find my house because of ‘the weird garden’ or ‘that garden full of thingies’ so I can understand the way you feel!
    I must admit I religiously follow Saint Piet’s word and never cut anything before february. I like to watch the way those stalky things evolve even after their death, through wind, rain and frost.

  2. Part of our job as parents is to embarrass our teens – which we manage to do by our very existence! I used to be more interested in fall clean up, but after seeing a downy woodpecker pecking at a yucca stalk I had not removed, I realized the summer’s leftovers serve a purpose. This past spring the best reward I have received for my “laziness” was a nest of praying mantis – I even caught the hatching on camera. Now, if we could count on a good snow cover each winter, the brown stalky things would be less of an issue.

  3. One more thing I love Piet Oudolf for! I can’t bring my self to cut everything down until the last minute, like around early March. I don’t want to look at blank, flat expanses of mulch for the next five months. By leaving everything standing, I can imagine spatially what’s there and, besides, I feel like I’d be destroying some critters’ winter hideaways. I will however cut down the things leaning over pathways that I’m tired of walking around or ducking under, that can feel liberating.

  4. When we bought this new house they had totally cleaned up everything, so the ground that showed up under the snow was bare….imagine how surprised I was all spring, there were perennials popping up everywhere, including in the middle of the pathway I had just built.


  5. Hi, Jason! I cut back a select few. I have a large semi-shade garden where I plant a lot of tropicals in the spring (I’m in zone 7, very not tropical…) and I can’t bear to watch the palms die and wave around all brown all winter. The rest of it, I dump crunched up leaves on, sometimes up to a foot deep. Impatiens and other late bloomers peek out of this, but in the spring a lot of annuals come back, due (I like to think) from my leaf mulch. Impatiens, begonias, asparagus ferns and other things I never thought would make it through the winter! Great post, as always!

  6. Though I have the utmost respect for Piet Oudolf, I am in total favor of a big fall clean up. In a climate of heat, humidity and in a wet summer the plants produce lots of rampant growth. Things get crowded and messy, so I look forward to a big cut back and clean up. I am not a neat freak, but it is just something that needs to be done in my garden.

  7. Lots of brown stalky things around here. My schedule until now has been busy, no matter what time of year, but I always have more energy in springtime. That said, I usually compost the dead veggie stems and Peony branches. But the perennials with seed heads stay up until spring so the birds can eat them. Sounds like we have a similar outlook on this topic. I embarrass my kids all the time–no matter what choices I make. 😉

    • Yes, my peony stems always get terrible downy mildew not long after blooming. I let them stay up anyway through most of summer because I figure they need the foliage to store energy.

  8. Love this post. My brown stalky things aren’t quite brown yet but they usually clean up more easily in the early spring when the’re really dry and fall to pieces fairly nicely. I leave much of the stuff on the ground as mulch because I’m lazy but tell people that it’s a natural composting scheme. When the debris piles become too unsightly, manure or our local and free biosolid mix gets thrown on top to pretty it up a bit. (Top dressing the beds with an organic mulch to provide nutrients and aid in moisture retention is what the sophisticated and non lazy folks say.)

  9. I’m of two minds when it comes to fall clean up. Like you, I’m very busy at work in the spring, so it pays to get a head start. So I generally cut down things like my peonies (which are looking particularly bad this year) and leave up anything with seedheads. A bit patchy, but it seems to work. And I agree that it’s our duty as parent to embarass our kids from time to time. Although they do say the darndest things!

  10. I am a yard tidier, it really only amounts to a spring and late summer weeding, but I have no choice but to collect my leaves in fall. The leaves from 11 Acer macrophyllum would smother almost everything beneath and form a hydrophobic mat if I didn’t. If there was any way to NOT contend with the leaves, I would do that. I do enjoy the way that meadow and prairie plants look in the fall and into winter, particularly the rudbeckias and echinaceas–but most folks’ ‘blowsy perennial gardens’ tend to look horrid. Having a not-horrid-looking-out-of-season perennial garden takes talent and “eye.” Nice work!

    • Thanks. I do worry about big leaves smothering stuff. Wish I had something to chop them up, but the closest I’ve got is a push mower, which doesn’t do the job.

      • A year ago, realizing there was no way to rake the leaves that plaster themselves onto my mosses, I rolled the dice and purchased a Worx TriVac–as seen on TV! Turns out, it is actually a serious and functional tool. It vacuums up the leaves and shreds them as they go through the impeller, and the shreddy leftovers go into a zippered bag on a shoulder strap. It is far from perfect, but worth the $90 or so to contend with what would otherwise be about fifty 32-gallon cans of leaves. I pile the leaf shreds and allow them to decompose over the wet NW winter, they make excellent soil amendments.

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