Autumn doesn’t need to be a time of gardening angst

Autumn is an anxious time for gardeners wondering what the right things are to do in their yards. As with many gardening jobs, the anxiety is mostly unnecessary — there are very few things you can do so wrong that you’ll kill a plant or ruin a garden.

But it is better to take a specific approach with some jobs. So allow me to demystify fall garden jobs in a quest to save gardeners from that moment when they stand in their gardens, pruners at the ready, wondering “Should I cut it or not?”

On the matter of pruning shrubs in fall the answer is almost always to put down the pruners and walk away. Pruning spring-flowering shrubs now will remove the flower buds that have already started forming. You can save pruning of later-blooming shrubs until late winter or early spring unless you really don’t want to deal with it then, but wait until the shrub has gone dormant before you go at it. Dead or diseased branches can be removed at any time.

The advice on cutting back perennials in fall has taken an about turn over the last few decades, so it’s no wonder that gardeners get confused. Gardeners used to be taught that the entire garden should be cut back and “cleaned up” in fall, but the benefits of letting plants stand have become apparent.

Perennials that are left to stand have more protection over winter as their stems help collect snow that insulates the crown of the plant. They are also useful for birds, which forage from seedheads, and insects that may overwinter in hollow stems. And for many gardeners, plants left standing create winter interest in what would otherwise be an empty space. That’s not to say that you can’t cut back a garden for winter if you prefer the clean-slate look, but trust me, it’s better not to.

It is best to remove diseased foliage, such as peonies with leaf blotch or phlox that have succumbed to powdery mildew, and the mushy frozen foliage of hostas offers no value to the garden over winter.

I’ve recently seen a lot of gardeners asking if they can plant bare root plants in fall. Apparently some mail order companies send out bare-root plants at this time, and although the timing seems odd, the right thing to do is get them in the ground right away. Bare-root plants require special conditions for long-term storage, and home gardeners are unlikely to be able to provide them. Get those plants (and others you might have around) in the ground as soon as possibly, and keep them well watered until the ground freezes.

The same goes for other perennials and shrubs. The ground is the place for them, not your house. These plants need dormancy, so even if you have to plunk them in the ground still in their pots and plant them properly in spring, that’s better than bringing them inside, which almost assures a slow death.

Fortunately the plants in your garden are far more resilient. They might not love you for ill treatment, but they’ll probably be fine.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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