Winter Gardening: Cutting Back Perennials and Ornamental Grasses

It may be winter, but unseasonably warm days like this prove it’s never too late/early in the season to take care of some gardening chores! Many gardeners neglect their garden during January, but our horticulturist Mark Burton thinks January is the perfect time to cut back perennials and ornamental grasses. Cutting back plants during the winter reduces the chance of damaging new growth while pruning, and it prevents against pests over-wintering in dead plant debris. This is a small chore that will only take you a few hours, but a fastidious trimming is sure to promote fresh, hardy growth come spring. And, when it’s 60 degrees outside, spending some time in the garden doesn’t sound so bad!

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Cutting Back Perennials

To begin, you’ll need a knife or shears. Prune by cutting stems close to the plant’s base. If you have trouble eye-balling where to cut, you can use a piece of string as a placeholder. If there’s any young growth on the plant, cut to just above it, taking caution not to harm the incipient blooms. Any diseased or sick material (such as stems showing mildew or leaf-spots) should be removed and disposed of. Stripped material that is not diseased can be composted.

After pruning, you should apply mulch and feed to your garden beds. This can be done in late February or early March.

Tip: If your soil is water-logged from a particularly wet winter, wait until it dries to begin pruning. If you know your soil is prone to becoming water logged during the winter, you may choose to trim in late autumn.

Image result for cutting back ornamental grasses

Cutting Back Ornamental Grasses

Cool season grasses like fescue, ribbon grass, and tufted hair grass can be cut back in late winter or, if the season is mild, earlier than that. Again, you’ll need a knife or shears to begin cutting (you can purchase shears made especially for grass at your local hardware store). Take care to avoid cutting back too far, lest you may cause significant damage to your grass. Aim to leave about 1/3rd of the grass intact and cut the rest. Be sure to cut rather than burn, and try to keep your trimming as even as possible. Using a rope or hardy string to clump sections of grass together will help you trim smoothly and evenly.

Tip: Warm season grasses like Bermuda grass should be cut back in spring rather than winter. Some ornamental grasses such as mondograss should also be left alone until later in the season. Be sure to research the kind of grass you have before cutting it back!

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