Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
February, 2008
Regional Report

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As the weather warms up, it's time to prune back some perennials, like this Russian sage.

Exercise Your Green Thumb Outdoors

The perennial garden may be in its sleeping mode, but the seasoned gardener knows it will soon be time to jump into action. And if you're like me, you have an itch to get outdoors and get your hands in the soil.

There are new beds to be prepared, and if the weather is mild, you might get some transplanting done. While you're on your knees, check for those pesky perennial weeds that are springing to life. Use an old-fashioned dandelion digger and pop roots and all out of the ground. A weed can't persist if you starve it of its foliage and roots.

Cutting Back Perennials
Should you cut back your perennials now? It depends. If you live in an area that gets little snow, it's best to leave the stems intact to trap the snow. Some perennials, such as the tall sedums or many ornamental grasses, are attractive in winter. If snow hasn't broken them down, leave them alone until early spring. My coneflowers have pretty much shed their seedheads or the birds have devoured them, so they can be cut back. Don't be surprised if tiny seedlings emerge later on as the soil warms up. Thinning or transplanting will be in order. Having a few 4-inch pots handy will make transplanting a breeze, and you can share seedlings with friends and neighbors.

As you are cutting back perennials, this is a good time to check their labels (if you're a labeler). This way you can keep track of what varieties you're growing and note when they were planted. My favorite labels are the soft aluminum kinds you write on and make an impression. Even if the ink or wax goes away, the impression stays to identify the plant.

Most of my perennials easily survive with their summer mulch, which consists of a couple inches of shredded cedar and the shredded autumn leaves. Many other gardeners feel that additional mulch should be applied to provide extra winter protection. In windy-prone areas you may need to add additional mulch to replenish places where the wind has blown the mulch to the neighbors.

Another consideration about mulching: Think like a critter, especially if you live in the mountains or near an open field. Rodents such as field mice, rabbits, and voles will set up house under a heavy blanket of mulch. That's why I recommend to mulch later in the fall so these pests will nest away from the garden beds. It's not a bad idea to check for critter activity and take precautions to remedy any problem areas.

As the snow melts and the soil begins to warm, you can start to gradually remove heavy layers of mulch placed directly over perennial crowns. Several warm days can cause early-blooming perennials to send out tender, weak growth under mulch. So leaving mulch on too long has its downsides, too. Now is a great time to spring into early action and check out the perennial gardens.

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