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.”
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.
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?