‘Ottawa’ Growing Things: Perennials Can be Prepped for Winter or Left Until Spring
Q: It does feel like fall is here, and as a new gardener I am not quite sure which of my plants must be cut back before the cold sets in. Is there a ‘rule of thumb’ to observe regarding this? I would very much appreciate your advice.
A: I am assuming you are talking about perennials. There is no general rule as to what you can cut back in the fall. Personally, I leave my perennials as is until the spring and then I do my cleaning up at that time. The leaves and stems can act as insulators during the winter, and in some cases can tell you where a plant was, so you don’t accidentally dig it up in the spring. If you are intent on cutting things back in the fall, make sure you wait until the plant has been killed back by the frost. If you cut back an actively growing plant you can damage it.
Some experts will tell you that cutting back and cleaning up in the fall will remove the parts of a plant that will rot in a wet spring and can harm emerging plants. They may be right, but my feeling has always been that if I get out there early enough in the spring I will clean things up before they have a chance to rot. For me, getting out early enough in the spring has never been a problem. I’m out there in the snow examining things and pulling plants that need to be removed. I like seeing where the plants were growing, and over the winter I actually like seeing the snow and/or ice sitting on the spent plants.
I like to cut back the taller perennials that have fallen over and look messy in the bed, although I like to leave plants like my echinaceas standing so that they catch the snow and ice, creating some winter interest in places where there would only be snow. Ultimately the choice is yours as a gardener, and I am not certain there is a right or wrong way to do this gardening chore.
On a different note, one of the things I enjoy most about writing this column is interaction with my readers. I get many e-mails each week seeking out ‘what works for me’ advice. I am a firm believer that as a gardener I never stop learning, so I receive each of these emails in the way it was intended — as a means of helping out fellow gardeners. I thought it might be fun to share one of these e-mails with you.
I read your article in the Journal this week addressing the pernicious problem of blossom rot and I think you need to hear my little story, folktale or not. My father was a small-town Alberta pharmacist who died in 1987. He was an avid gardener. His solution to avoid blossom rot was to toss a small handful — probably a scant two tablespoons — of powdered milk into the transplant hole before tucking in the seedling plant. Never, and I repeat never, did he have blossom rot. When the neighbours tried his solution, voila!
I also was an avid grower of tomatoes in my time, frequently nursing 32 plants along my driveway or on the deck, all in pots. I always tossed in the milk powder. The only time I had blossom rot was when I tried an arcane variety (the name has long since been lost) and had weird, stunted tomatoes with black bottoms. Your readers might want to try this. Scientifically, I suppose it addresses the calcium issue….
I have not tried this technique. The scientist in me still thinks the issue has more to do with water availability than with calcium, since we in Edmonton should not have a problem with a lack of calcium because most of our soil has plenty of it. However, if you are having problems with blossom end rot where you live and are watering your tomatoes well then this technique is certainly worthy of trial.
Gerald Filipski is a member of the Garden Writers Association of America. E-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org He is the author of Just Ask Jerry. To read previous columns, go to edmontonjournal.com/filipski