Should you cut all your perennials to ground level, as many suggest!
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

October 1, 2017

Again this week, I have no photos to illustrate properly the topic of my item. So, here is a batch of photos from our garden here in Parksville. Above, my rare Acer palmatum ‘Ukiguma’ Floating Clouds; Hibiscus ‘Bali Sunrise’ (comes in for winter); and our large pond with Marsh Marigolds in bloom. Below, Colchicums that have just been knocked over by a rain; our indoor Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia) in bloom outdoors; and our climbing roses on arbor at large pond.
Author photos.





Soon most of the garden writers and broadcasters will be recommending cutting down all the herbaceous perennials in your garden to within 15 cm (6") of the ground, "leaving just enough stubble to catch and hold the snow as an insulation."

Not me!

Basically my entire back garden is perennials, and I do almost no cutting back of the perennials whatsoever. I much prefer to leave the various stalks standing to gather snow and to stick through the initial snow cover (if we get much heavy snow). Plants such as Joe-Pyeweed (Eupatorium maculatum) look delightful growing up through the snow with their seed heads covered in each new light covering. Why cut them down now? Instead, leave them as a decorative feature!

Anything that can make the garden of greater interest during the winter should be welcomed, not cut off unceremoniously. And, many perennials left with seeds through the winter will be an added benefit for the birds that visit your garden.

An exception to this might well be goldenrod (Solidago spp.). Though I urge you to grow various cultivars of this plant in your perennial garden, I also suggest that you cut off the old flower heads before the seed is produced. This plant tends to spread rapidly from seed and you can prevent much of that by cutting the flower heads before the seeds mature.

In mentioning Joe-Pyeweed, I should add that less than 30 years ago, literally no one in Canada or the US had considered it as a garden plant. It is a native that I've seen growing in many provinces, yet it was never considered for gardens. Even in 1990 few garden centres sold it. Now almost every garden supply outlet has it. If you are considering planting this native perennial, in addition to its benefits--easy to grow, hardy, late blooming season, etc.--it does have some negatives to consider. For example, it will spread fairly quickly, but not as badly, say as goldenrod. Its mauve/pink flowers (and now joined by a white) are certainly attractive throughout late August and September at the back of perennial borders and against fences.

All gardeners should hope that we have a decent snow cover this Winter. Snow is absolutely the best protection for tender perennials such as red hot poker and shasta daisies. For perennials such as foxtail lily (Eremurus), which is even more border line in many of our Canadian climates, a covering of straw or dry leaves held down over the plants with wire or nylon mesh is almost essential. However, it's important that it not be put down until after the ground is frozen. To do it earlier only invites rodents such as mice to move in and set up a winter home!

Last year at this time we we're preparing to plant over 900 Spring-flowering bulbs! That may sound like a lot, and in fact it is, but since over two-thirds of these were smaller bulbs, such as Scilla (bluebells), Muscari (grape hyacinth), Ornithogalum (star of Bethlehem), Pushkinia and Allium, these were planted in large groups (individual patches of from 25 to 200 bulbs) so that they would "naturalize."

That means all these bulbs will multiply and expand over the years, and I'll have a solid carpet of blue Scilla nutans and a mixed carpet of pink, blue and white Scilla campanulata early each Spring, as well as a ground cover of green foliage with white flowered Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum) in late May and June. Since these bulbs cannot be planted deep, we have used nylon mesh over each planting area and you should do the same if squirrels are prevalent in your area.

Believe it or not, the major seed companies are in the last stages of preparing their 2018 catalogues for dispatch to you, their customers. If you purchased from one or several of the companies last year, you will almost certainly receive their next catalogue. If you did not, it's not too early to begin writing and requesting copies.


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