Fine Gardeners Blog

Cutting Back Perennials At The End Of The Season

Paul Marini - Marini Fine Gardeners - Tuesday, October 31, 2017

To Cut Back Or Not Cut Back? That Is The Question.

Fine Gardeners, Brookline, Newton, Needham, MAMost of the perennials in the garden are past their prime and it’s time to make the big decision. So when is the best time to cut back perennials at the end of the season? It depends!

Several things need to be taken into consideration.

Perennials to leave standing:

Most importantly, don’t cut back evergreen or semi-evergreen perennials or it may lead to their demise. Evergreen plants need to retain their leaves in order to survive the winter. Remember this simple phrase: If it’s green, let it be; If it’s brown, maybe you should cut it down. I say maybe, because there are many reasons not to cut them down. Examples of some common evergreen and semi-evergreen perennials: Heuchera (Coral Bells), Geranium (Cranesbill), Lavendula (Lavender), Stachys (Lambs Ear), Dianthus (Pinks)

Many perennials provide winter interest, especially during a snowy winter. Tall ornamental grasses provide drama in the winter landscape with their tall plumes as well as movement with the slightest breeze. Perennials with persistent seed pods and seed heads can also remain for winter interest. Examples: Miscanthus (Maiden Grass), Calamagrostis (Feather Reed Grass), Baptisia, Echinacea (Purple Cone Flower), Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed-Susan), Sedum. Perennials that are marginally hardy, such as Agastache (Anise Hyssop) and Chrysanthemum (Garden Mums) will have a better chance of surviving the winter if left standing.

Perennials that provide food for birds:

Many birds utilize the seed heads of dried perennials during the winter. Also, birds often find protection in plant stubs, ground covers and leaf litter. Beneficial insects may hide in or near native plants for the winter in pupae stage, as caterpillars or eggs. Plants provide shelter from predators such as birds or spiders. Leaf litter also provides shelter for insects which is another good reason to keep some leaf litter in the garden all winter. Don’t be too tidy with the fall cleanup in your perennial beds.

Perennials To Cut Back:

Some perennials don’t contribute much to winter interest nor do they provide food for wildlife. These perennials can look a bit unsightly so why not cut them back when it is time. Plants that are prone to disease and insect pest problems should be cut to the ground to reduce the chance of infection the following season. Monarda (Bee Balm) and Tall Phlox are perfect examples of perennials that are prone to disease and pest problems. The leaves of Hosta can often harbor the eggs from slugs, so it’s best to cut them back when they turn yellow and remove them from the garden to prevent them from hatching in the garden next year. We cut back any plants with browning or blackened foliage and bare stalks that don’t add anything visually to the winter garden. Examples: Paeonia (Peonies), Hemerocallis (Daylillies), Brunnera, Veronica (Speedwell)

Some perennials will generate new basal foliage from the crown of the plant so do not disturb this new growth when cutting back the dead stalks. Examples: Leucanthemum (Shasta Daisy), Echinops (Globe Thistle), Centaurea (Bachelor Buttons)

Procedure for cutting plants back:

Don’t be in too much of a hurry to cut plants back. Timing varies from year to year depending on temperature fluctuations. This Fall has been very mild and we still haven’t had a killing frost so it’s too soon to cut things back in my opinion. If the plants are completely brown, black or disease ridden, then by all means, cut them back. In general, wait until we have had several hard frosts which will cause the plants to go dormant. If they haven’t gone dormant yet then they are still storing energy to the root system for next year.

When cutting down a plant, leave about two inches above the soil to mark its location in the garden. This especially important for late-emerging plants such as Hibiscus, Asclepias (Butterfly Weed), and Platycodon (Balloon Flower). We use several tools for cutting back plants. Bypass pruners, gardening scissors and serrated garden knives are all good tools for this purpose. The thickness of the stems determines which tool to use. If you have large masses of one type of perennial, then power hedge trimmers or hand shears might be the best tool to use.

In closing, do whatever suits your gardening style. If your gardening style is ‘neat and tidy’, then you will probably prefer to cut all your plants back, except for the evergreens, in the fall. For many gardeners, leaving some of your select perennials will provide winter interest and be beneficial for wildlife.

For more information, contact Paul Marini at Fine Gardeners.

Great Plants for Fall Container Gardens

Paul Marini - Marini Fine Gardeners - Thursday, October 12, 2017

Fine Gardeners, Brookline, Newton, Needham, MAMums and asters are all over the place in the fall and they are great plants. But there are lots of other contenders that can sail through the cold temps of fall, looking awesome. Many garden centers don't carry a lot of the plants that are mentioned for the fall. But...

Here are some favorites.

Heuchera aka Coral Bells

Coral bells, also known as heuchera, are an all-time favorite container plants. They come in a mind-blowing assortment of colors and leaf textures and they are a very good-humored plant – almost impossible to kill. Some heuchera are happy in full sun, shade, or anything in between. Most are hardy down to -25 °F and perennial in zones 4 to 9. They are mounding plants and look great on their own or paired with either contrasting plants or in shades of the same color.

Coral bells can look great with gourds, mums and ornamental grasses. Choose a dark, almost black leaf, like 'Dolce, Licorice' or choose the lighter, 'Dolce, Peach Melba' for a terrific fall plant that works well with many fall decorations.


Verbena is a prolific bloomer and will look good from spring well into fall. Many verbenas are hardy down to 15 °F and will continue flowering even after the first frost. They look great either on their own or filling in spaces and spilling over the edges of garden planters, window boxes or hanging baskets.

Colors range from brilliant reds to deep, dark blue to purples and pinks. They are drought tolerant and only need an average amount of water. They do need good drainage and, like most flowering annuals, verbenas need to be fed every couple of weeks. Though deadheading isn't necessary for most common varieties, your plant will look much better if you cut off the blooms after they fade. If your plant gets leggy, you will want to give it a serious haircut, pruning it way back, so it will fill out.

Oxalis or Shamrock

Oxalis is elegant and, at the same, time kind of cheerful. It is exceedingly easy to grow and likes partial shade to full shade. It is hardy to 15 °F and is an annual except in zones 8 to 10. Oxalis is a mounding plant and grows to be 12 to 18 inches high, making it a good plant to use in filling out a container. It comes in several colors including a really dark, almost black, ‘Charmed Velvet,’ and my favorite, a burgundy color called ‘Charmed Wine.” Another plus about oxalis is that you can bring it inside to overwinter.

Make sure you get Oxalis vulcanicola, which is not invasive.

Decorative Cabbage and Kale

Decorative cabbages are delightfully chubby and cheerful plants, while the kales are all spiky and radical looking. However, both of these plants will take you well into fall with style and beautiful sagey greens with pinks and purples. As a bonus, flowering cabbage and kales' colors only intensify as the weather gets colder, especially after a frost.

They also can bring some great color and texture to mixed container gardens. Kales can look great in funky shallow baskets, window boxes or modern metal planters with clean lines. These are really bold plants, so don’t be afraid to put them in unusual containers or combine them with unlikely plants.


Sedum, also known as stonecrop, is a classic fall plant for container gardens because that’s when it looks its best. Blooming in late summer to early fall, sedum is easy to grow in containers, preferring good drainage and full sun, though most will tolerate some shade. There are a vast array of sedums with different textures and flowers.

Sedum is a particularly good choice of plant for a fall container that you want to leave out all winter, because the dried flowers can look beautiful, especially covered with snow or frost. Sedum is hardy to a whopping -40°F and is a perennial in zones 3 to 9.

Some sedum can get pretty tall so it’s great to use in the center or back of a container.

Rudbeckia hirta.

Several great varieties such as Cherokee Sunset, Cherry Brandy, and Indian Summer are excellent, very showy additions to Fall planters. These sell out very quickly at garden centers, so shop early for them!

These plants will also survive the cold with style and class.

  • Wirevine
  • White Clover
  • Creeping Jenny
  • Sage
  • Lambs Ear's
  • Calibrachoa

Don't feel like creating your fall planter yourself? No problem, contact Paul at Fine Gardeners, we'll take care of it.

horticulturally savvy gardeners
Fine Gardeners