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The Perennials to Cut Back in the Fall (and the Ones to Leave Until Spring)

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The cool, sunny days of fall are a great time to do a little tidying up in your garden, raking leaves and removing dead annuals and fallen foliage from around your perennials. “One reason to clean up is aesthetics, but you also should remove dead perennial foliage that could harbor diseases that can survive the winter and affect next year’s growth,” says Darren Barshaw, product representative for Darwin Perennials, a perennial plant breeder and producer. “Wait to clean up until after a hard frost or two, when the sugars of the plant have gone into the roots and crown of the plant to prepare it to re-emerge in spring.”

But before you start cutting down everything in sight, some perennials benefit by not being cut back in fall. Keeping their foliage intact provides winter protection for the crown of the plant, which is where the stems join the roots, for a healthy start next year. Many perennials also provide winter food and shelter for birds and beneficial pollinators, so they should remain in place in your garden until next spring, says Barshaw.

If you’re not sure what you have, whether annual or perennial, wait until spring to remove dead foliage. It’s always better to be safe than sorry! It’s OK to wait until next spring altogether; most plants will be just fine without a fall pruning. Finally, don’t be too hasty to rip out perennials that seem dead next spring. Depending on the weather, some perennials may not make an appearance until late May. If you don’t see any activity by mid-June, however, it’s safe to assume your perennial didn’t make it through the winter, says Barshaw. Dig it up, and plant something new!

Below, the most common perennials and when to cut them back.

1. Astilbe

  • When to cut back: Fall

The foliage is lackluster after a frost, so remove it in the fall. But if you like the look of the feathery flowers, leave them intact for spring, or cut to use in dried arrangements indoors.

2. Bee Balm

  • When to cut back: Fall

Even disease-resistant varieties of bee balm are susceptible to powdery mildew. Cut down to the ground in fall and discard foliage to give plants a healthy start next spring.

3. Catmint

  • When to cut back: Fall

Foliage dies back after a freeze, so get ahead of your spring cleanup by cutting to about 6 inches above the ground in fall. But if you don’t get around to it, it’s OK to trim it up in spring.

4. Clematis

  • When to cut back: Spring

There are several different types with varying bloom times, and it can be tough to tell which kind you have. To be on the safe side so you don’t cut off buds, leave clematis until spring, then remove brown foliage. And don’t be impatient; this perennial can be slow to show signs of spring growth.

5. Coneflower

When to cut back: Spring or fall

You can cut these back to about 6 inches tall in the fall if you want to neaten things up. But the interesting seedheads provide texture to the winter garden, and birds such as goldfinches and cardinals will enjoy the seeds as a winter treat.

6. Daylily

  • When to cut back: Spring or fall

While you don’t necessarily have to cut the clumps back in fall, you can do so to remove the risk of any disease overwintering. Toss foliage instead of composting.  

7. Ferns

  • When to cut back: Spring

The faded foliage will protect the crown of the plant, so leave these intact over the winter. Next spring, remove the dead fronds as the baby fiddleheads unfurl from beneath them.

8. Heuchera

  • When to cut back: Spring

Leave this plant alone in autumn and wait to remove the raggedy leaves in the spring. The foliage helps protect the crown from winter damage.

9. Hellebores

  • When to cut back: Spring

Don’t trim these evergreen perennials in the fall because you’ll remove new foliage where the buds for flowers, which bloom in late winter and early spring, are forming. Cut back dead leaves on hellebores, also called Lenten roses, after flowers fade.

10. Hosta

  • When to cut back: Fall

Cut these back in fall to outsmart hungry slugs, which like to lay their eggs in the crown. But leave a few inches above ground so that you protect the plant from winter damage.

11. Iris

  • When to cut back: Fall

Irises are susceptible to iris borers and fungal diseases, so cut foliage back to about 6 inches tall in fall. Discard, rather than composting, leaves.

12. Lavender

  • When to cut back: Spring

If you cut lavender back in the fall, you’ll leave this plant susceptible to winter damage. Wait until foliage begins to appear in the spring, then snip off only dead pieces; avoid pruning back into the woody parts of stems, which can kill the plant.

13. Milkweed

  • When to cut back: Spring

Leave milkweed standing over the winter because it provides shelter for pollinators. Cut off any dead foliage in spring.

14. Peony

  • When to cut back: Fall

Peonies are susceptible to powdery mildew. Cut the plant back to just above the ground to prevent disease from overwintering on fallen foliage.

15. Perennial Geranium

  • When to cut back: Spring or fall

It’s fine to leave perennial geraniums, also called cranesbill, intact if the foliage remains evergreen in mild climates. But in cold climates, you can cut them back after a frost to neaten things up.

16. Phlox

  • When to cut back: Fall

These tall perennials are susceptible to powdery mildew. Trim to the ground in fall and toss the foliage.

17. Salvia

  • When to cut back: Fall

Perennial salvia looks best when pruned back throughout the season to keep it from flopping over. In the fall, cut down to just above the new growth at ground level to give it a healthy start in spring.

18. Sedum

  • When to cut back: Spring

It’s fine to leave the stems intact to add texture and winter interest to your garden. In fact, snow looks pretty cool piled up on their upright flowers.

19. Speedwell

  • When to cut back: Fall

Also called veronica, speedwell doesn’t look good after a frost. Cut it back to just above the new growth at ground level for a head start in spring.

Best Pruners for Cutting Back Perennials