Early fall cutdown okay

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Compare this photo to the one below: Do you miss the whole peony (A) and faded bear's breeches stalks and leaves (B) that we cut from this scene? We don't! We do like that it's created a cleaner view of the bear's breeches' unexpected bonus bloom. 

3rd week of September:

I notice you've cut down irises already. Is that okay?
- S.J. -

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Early cuts are ruthless, harmless, pretty

It's perfectly okay. Irises, peonies, coneflowers, daylilies, we're cutting at will, now. Some for their health, most for our visual pleasure.

Some perennials, including peonies and iris, are better cut early than late. When we remove iris foliage from the bed after early September, we're also fending off next year's pests by removing iris borer eggs laid on those leaves. We cut peonies early to stay ahead of botrytis, a leaf disfiguring, flower bud killing disease. By October what were just purple-brown blotches on the leaves and stalks at Labor Day may have traveled down the stem and infected the crown, ready to start trouble in the new year.

Above: A peony and other plants have been cut out of this garden long before frost. One reason we cut out the peony was to control the very common disease, peony botrytis. We don't miss its presence. Compare this image to the one at the top of this page to make up your own mind.

Pest trouble aside, we don't cut gardens down all at once in late fall. It's too depressing to go from merry fullness to moonscape in one day. Instead, we cut a bit at a time throughout fall. We're not out to scalp anything, just take away all the tall stems and debris. Perennials that develop a basal rosette for winter keep that nice looking new foliage. Others produce some new growth after the cut, which is not a loss to the plant and can even refresh a late fall scene.

We've been doing this ruthless cutting for 30 years without ill effect, ever since it occurred to us that Ma Nature does the same thing in our region when killing frost comes earlier than usual, in September. That the plants survive this means they must be capable of early check out. And why not? By Septemebr they've had a 5 month growing season, and that's plenty.

Ma Nature's killing frosts can start cutting things down in September in our region. So we have no qualms about cutting early.

- Janet -

Below: If a perennial's no longer attractive in fall -- brown or just blah -- we take it out of the picture. Since we no longer admired this Russian sage (A, Perovskia atriplicifolia), we don't miss it after the cut. (About "B" - we cut down those daylilies six weeks ago when they were tatty and brown. We like them better with new foliage.)

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Below: Places like this bearded iris patch in the last half of September are where Steven's photographer's motto applies perfectly. "If it's not contributing to the scene, it must be detracting."

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Exceptions to the early cut

We do make exceptions. We ask ourselves before the cut:

  • Did we pick this plant and place it so its seedpods and stems would make a nice winter scene?
  • If we take this out will any still-blooming neighbor fall down or look lonely? (There's no sense leaving fall stars prone or forlorn. In the photo above we considered cutting out the hosta, too, but the Nerine at far left has yet
    to bloom and can stand the company.)
  • Did we grow this for seeds for the birds? (If appearances require we cut them, then we bunch the stems and hang them where the birds can still get them.)
  • Is this part of a butterfly sanctuary? The stalks all around butterfly host plants may have overwintering caterpillars and chrysalises. (If we must cut these, we bundle them loosely, prop the sheaves out of sight, then clear them away late the next spring.)
  • Is this a marginally hardy plant, one to be babied? If so, it may derive a bit of extra protection from its old stems. (However, we've mostly given up that goofy game. Now, if it's not reliable over winter we say, "to heck with you.")