Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
November, 2005
Regional Report

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One of only a few plants in our region that reliably provide blazing autumn colors, maples are a staple for colorful landscapes.

Fall Pruning

There's an unmistakable crispness in the air, a sure sign that summer is coming to an end. I think fall is a magical time. I love the cooler temperatures, shorter days, and awesome autumn foliage. They have a soothing effect after the busyness of summer, especially when savored with a cup of hot apple cider.

Our first frost usually arrives in late November and transforms the garden overnight. Trees once decorated with red and yellow leaves will look naked, with only gray-brown branches poking skyward. In my yard, the leaves seem to fall silently, almost in unison, leaving a colorful blanket beneath the limbs.

To Prune or Not to Prune
During the last clear, sunny days of fall I always wrestle with the same problem. Should I take advantage of the warm weather and cut back the tender perennials or wait until they die back on their own? Cutting them down now is easy work in the warm rays of sunshine even though the plants are still green. If I wait until frost kills them, I'll have to brave the elements to clean up the garden. Quite a predicament. Should I consider plant health or creature comfort? Do I follow the plant's schedule or mine?

All of my research into this dilemma indicates that I should let my plants go dormant on their own. Experiencing the colder and shorter days of autumn prepares a plant for the coming frost. This gradual conditioning helps harden off plants, getting them ready for winter. As long as the leaves remain on a plant, they're busy providing nutrients to the roots. When frost finally arrives, the plant will slip easily into dormancy.

My Solution
With all that said, I still love working in the garden when the air is crisp, the ground is dry, and the sun is warm. So I'll compromise. I'll cut back the more vigorous perennials with fibrous root systems, and leave the tops alone on anything that grows from a tuber, corm, or bulb. I think that those underground storage organs will benefit most from the last-minute rations from the green leaves, and the fibrous-rooted perennials more easily tolerate early beheading. Dividing garden cleanup into two sessions makes me happy and doesn't seem to bother my plants in the least.

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