Every gardener must decide: Cut Back or Leave Standing

Aster hiding in the Amsonia
There comes a time in the fall when every gardener who gardens in a climate with a true winter season with snow and ice and, well, winter,  must decide. Cut down those seed heads on the perennials and grasses or leave them standing thru the winter.

The proponents of leaving the perennials alone for the winter point out that many of those seeds are food for the birds.  Plus, all those perennials, even stripped of bloom and leaf, add that oft-spoken of structure to the winter garden.  Oh, and not too mention, those seeds may fall to the ground and sprout into new seedlings that you can dig up and give to others or plant in bare spots somewhere else in the garden.

Those who advocate for cutting down the perennials warn that all those seeds could sprout and over run your garden.  You'll be weeding forever if you leave those perennials standing all winter, free to fling their seeds about the garden.  They will tell you that some perennials, like Asters, Amsonia, Black-eyed Susans and Coneflowers,  can over take a garden with their seedlings.  Oh, yes, they can! I've seen it in my own garden. I've weeded them out of my own garden

What's a gardener to do?

What a gardener needs to do is just decide for themselves and do what feels right to them. 

I do a little of both, depending on my mood and the amount of time I have in the fall to do garden clean up and what type of flower it is.

The seedlings that come up from all those perennials left standing through the winter are both a blessing and a curse.  Right now, they are a blessing in the August Dreams Garden border. I want those plants, which are mostly native flowers, wildflowers, to seed forth and multiple, to fill in and create the look of a prairie.

Those seedlings are a curse in Plopper's Field.  That garden is pretty full and lush already. If there are open spaces, I want to fill them in with all my impulse purchases, not the same plants I have today.

So decide for yourself.  Cut 'em down or leave 'em standing.  There's no right or wrong answer when it comes to cutting back perennials for the winter.

Seeds of August Dreams Garden border.

 Just be prepared to accept the consequences of your choice.


  1. Today was the only sunny day in ages it seems, and so lots was cut back in our garden. The slimy hostas were an easy decision, the asters a tougher one, and the woodies a "NO!" But best of all, the bulbs are planted and I can move ahead and deal with mounding the roses, caging against rodents, and grinding up leaves. :)

  2. I personally plan to cut back my perennials some time between now and May, depending on when I have the time and inclination. For now I think it's more important to paint the annex; the plants will survive just fine without my attention, but the buildings are perhaps slightly more important...

  3. I find that self-seeding perennials and annuals are less of a problem than weeds that I've allowed to set seeds, and since these decisions most often come down to limits on our time, I would concentrate on weeding consistently (always keep a hoe in the garden tucked behind a shrub) rather than cutting back the "good plants" in the fall. Also, a lot of the re-seeding is taking place by mid and late summer before you really want to cut anything anyway.

  4. I used to cut back the gardens and have everything clean as a whistle then came the coldest winter in a long while with no snow. I lost so many things I now leave everything as is and clean in the spring. The plus side is the birds enjoy the seeds all winter

  5. It is an individual choice isn't it? I cut some and leave some. Usually I run out of time and energy and then there are bulbs to be planted.

  6. I leave most but cut back the Cup Plant~Silphium is a notorious seeder and I don't need twenty 12 foot tall plants in my small Susan's Bed.

  7. I do a little of both. I will not leave Liatris in my garden. Once I did, and I had seedlings everywhere in the flower bed.I do leave allysum, and a few verbena Bonariensis,so that they will self sow. I cut down my Black eyed susans.

  8. I follow the rule: "Moderation in all things." Cut back a little here, leave seed heads a little there. I still end up pulling a few seedlings in the Spring. Winter gave us a tease yesterday... we had snow. But hey! Not so bad. It provided a great photo op for the few remaining blooms to strut their stuff. The snow melted by noon and the sun was radiant.

  9. Heidi/Woodland GardenFri Oct 26, 08:32:00 AM 2012

    Excellent points! I get conflicting articles and points of view as well. I really like your common sense approach! Now, I know how to make guilt-free decisions about whether to leave the plants or cut them down. :)

  10. Hi Carol, I like to cut back in the fall. When spring comes, I am eager to plant and enjoy new life -not do garden clean up. I want a clean slate when spring comes. I do leave the ornamental grasses, clematis, and coneflowers though.

  11. I have never had enough time before snow flies that this is a dilemma for me. If I manage to cut down anything at all, it is the foliage that is known to create disease problems, such as peony foliage. Bulb planting, weeding, and mulching (in that order) are higher priorities.

  12. I generally leave grasses and other plants that look good through the winter, then cut down most of the rest. Some low plants, like nepeta, I leave until spring because they help insulate the other perennials.

  13. I leave most everything standing for all the reasons you mention...and because I usually run out of time.

    But this year I am pulling every single nicotania plant! Just watch, next year I probably won't have a single one come back and I'll wish I hadn't pulled them:)


Post a Comment

Comments are to a blog what flowers are to a garden. Sow your thoughts here and may all your comments multiply as blooms in your garden.

Though there is never enough time to respond to each comment individually these days, please know that I do read and love each one and will try to reciprocate on your blog.

By the way, if you are leaving a comment just so you can include a link to your business site, the garden fairies will find it and compost it!