Putting Perennial Gardens to Bed

by Miriam Hansen

Miriam’s been a bit under the weather of late, and couldn’t summon the reserves to write a column for this issue. We are therefore publishing, at her suggestion and with a few modifications, the column she published last October—with our wishes for a speedy recovery.

This is a busy time of year in the vegetable garden. We have to cut out last year’s raspberry canes; weed and fertilize blueberries, asparagus and raspberries; till and plant winter rye where crops have been harvested; weed fall beds of carrots and beets; get a plot clean and ready for garlic; and continue to harvest and process broccoli, kale, chard, parsley, dill, basil, celery, cauliflower, cabbage and tomatillos. Everything else is already canned, frozen, dried or stored in the root cellar.

So it’s time to put the perennials to bed. In my gardens, this means cutting back most of the herbaceous perennials to about three or four inches above the ground. Some plants, notably those that have a creeping habit—like candytuft, moss phlox and dianthus (pinks)—should not be cut back at all. In the spring, when the snow has melted and the soil is exposed, I cut any dead or rotten bits out of those plants. But even in spring,                         I’ve learned to wait a while to give the plants   a chance to green up.

I used to cut perennials back with gardening or pruning shears, but a couple of years ago I learned about a curved Japanese slicing tool you can find at Elmore Roots. My landscaping buddies affectionately call this tool the slasher. It is a much quicker, more effective way of cutting back perennials in the fall.

Once I’ve cut back all the lilies, peonies, echinacea, hostas and so on, I fertilize around the plants with some of our homemade compost. If you don’t have any compost at home, you can buy bags of Pro-Gro, a mineral blend manufactured by North Country Organics, or Moo Doo. Both these fertilizers are available from Guy’s Farm and Yard in Montpelier, although they’ve been known to run out of Moo Doo. The important thing about the fertilizer you use on perennials in the fall is that it should be quite low in nitrogen and high in phosphorus. The nitrogen promotes leafy growth, something you don’t want when plants are headed toward dormancy. Phosphorus promotes root growth, which will encourage the plant to bloom more profusely the following year.

Last year I added Pro-Holly to my list of amendments. Pro-Holly is another North Country Organics mineral blend formulated especially for plants that require acidic conditions. That includes raspberries, blueberries, azaleas, rhododendrons, heathers, hydrangeas and oaks. Applied in the fall, it will help the plant produce bigger root systems and aid in winter survival. Because it is largely made up of slow-release nutrients, those nutrients will be available to the plants as they begin to wake up in the spring. 

It’s also time to thin and divide plants that have gone out of bounds. Don’t be afraid to throw out some of the extra plants you get when you divide them. I know it is hard to believe, but you don’t have to hold onto every bit of day lily, lamb’s ears, cranesbill, phlox or Japanese anemone (for example) that has spread or grown too big for its spot in the bed. As long as they aren’t diseased, those extra plants can go right on the compost pile. That compost, applied in spring, will make the plant you’ve left in the ground that much more vigorous.

In a column I wrote in the summer of 2013, I mentioned that acidanthera (Gladiolus murielae, or peacock orchid) has been known to survive the winter. According to everything I’d heard and read previously, acidantheras are like dahlias, which have to be lifted in the fall and replanted in the spring. Following the column’s printing, I received a call from a reader in Middlesex. She was growing 100 gladioli and never lifts any of them. They come back every spring. This opened up whole new avenues of thought for me. If gladioli didn’t need to be lifted, we suddenly had access to some incredible perennials.

I’ve long disliked gladioli because I’d acquainted myself only with their huge flowers, which I associate with funerals. A little research on the web confirmed that there are many exotic gladioli as beautiful as the fragrant orchid peacock, or acidanthera. Last fall, then, I played it safe. I lifted some of the acidanthera and most of the dahlias. All well and good—but the exceptionally severe winter wrecked the plan, and neither the dahlias nor the acidanthera left in the garden made it through to spring. Messing with Mother Nature can tempt fate.

Knowing the perfect early October weather won’t last forever makes each day even more precious. Don’t forget to feed your plants and give them room to spread out those nourished roots. Knock back those invasive plants, and divide and discard the plants that you just don’t have the room for. You will be amply rewarded in the spring. Happy gardening!

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