To Prune or Not to Prune?

That is the question as the weather grows colder

Should you cut back your hardy perennials or leave them standing for winter interest?

Pruning tidies the garden, makes compost and mulch application easier and helps prevent disease in some plants.

On the other hand, leaving perennials standing maintains visual winter interest in the garden, supplies seed for birds and shelter for overwintering butterflies and provides cold protection for some plants.

Here are a few recommendations from the National Gardening Association, or NGA:

  • Plants to prune: Daylilies, brunnera, veronica, Siberian irises, bearded irises, peonies, bee balm and garden phlox. Most of these plants either don’t add winter interest or tend to harbor overwintering insects and diseases, or both.
  • Plants to leave standing: For winter interest—yarrow, showy stonecrop sedum, joe-pye weed and ornamental grasses. For plant crown protection against the cold—asters, daisies, chrysanthemums, agastache and red hot pokers. For evergreen color and plant insulation—geraniums, heucheras, hellebores, dianthus and moss phlox.

For many other plants, says the NGA, there are benefits and drawbacks to both pruning and leaving plants standing through the winter. The seedheads of coneflowers and
rudbeckias, for example, provide winter food for birds and cover for overwintering butterflies and beneficial insects. But if you decide to leave them standing, be prepared for self-sown seedling plants and more weeding and pruning in the spring.

Beth Stetenfeld is a McFarland-based editor, writer, master naturalist and creator of the gardening blog PlantPostings.com.

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