To Tidy the garden or NOT.

November. Pretty much.

Today was a blasting, chinook, classic stormy November day in the PNW. The wind blew gusting to 40 mph  for a good 12 hours straight and the rain came down in sheets. Once the cold front swept through this evening I took time out to survey my garden. I was a little wary because there was a stupid ‘Paul’s Scarlet’ Hawthorne that had been split in half at the end of my block from the swirling winds. (Of course it broke where heart rot had whittled away the interior- that seems to be the case in about 75% of the tree failures that I see. ) What I found was not damage but the garden definitely looked like it had been through the wash. Best of all the leaves had been stripped off of ALL of my deciduous trees and flung far away. In this frost free autumn, I was curious to know when they would go.


Leaves, leave the leaves

Recently I read an article saying that it was more environmentally sound to leave leaves rather than rake them up. It touted all sorts of benefits and all I could take away was UM, NO shit. There has to be nothing more idiotic than stuffing bags full of leaves to be hauled away. A phenomenal waste of time, energy, and money. (Even more hideous is when the leaves are ensconced in PLASTIC bags….never to decompose and forever stuck in landfills.) Leaves are good. They are designed to go away. Thats their whole reason de etre. And they break down into all sorts of wonderful things like leaf mold, compost, and soil. True some leaves take longer to break down than others but for the most part they all go away in a reasonable amount of time. I take the leaves from my trees and the neighbors contributions and use them to mulch my beds. They do all sorts of great things, like protect the soil from frost heaves, encourage biological activity and save me money the following spring on compost. I try to move the leaves to the edge of dainty perennials and bulbs leaving their crowns exposed so they won’t smother. Some plant that get that treatment are Cyclamen coum, Tommy Crocus (Crocus thomasinianus) and small scale ground covers,  (Ellisiophyllum, Pratia, Veronica liawanensis) and remove them from evergreen Sedums.  Other than that I use them to cozy up to such perennials as Astelia nervosa, for added cold protection and I tuck them under the leaves of evergreen Epimediums for the promise of spring.  So, is it environmentally beneficial to leave the leaves and let them break down? What do you think?

Rock steady

This first wet month of winter (technically in our region) often comes with gales. After a good blow its a great time to check on shrubs that may have rocked in the whipping blast combined with saturated soils. Go around the garden and give a wiggle to any fast growing, relatively new shrub or tree. If you see something listing to the left there are several things that you can do. First I check to see if I can right the plant and then give it a good stomp on the loosened side of the root ball. Don’t be bashful (also don’t stomp so hard that you tear the roots) but give it a good firm push. Normally that will work magic and you are set. Keep your eye on especially fast growing shrubs such as Grevilleas, Arctostaphylos, Italian Cypress, Arizona Cypress which can get a little over enthusiastic here in their eternal spring. If you have to stake the plant then so be it. I use rebar for the bigger things and 6mm by 2mm x 1m  metal stakes for smaller things. Thread the stake through the middle of the shrub (candidly hiding it from view) and then attach it with velcro straps (garden velcro is magic- if you don’t know it you should).  When everything is staked in a sturdy manner make sure to check back and loosen the velcro if growth warrants it. Most often this situation and boisterous growth will set things right in a season or two. If stakes are not in your palette then consider a big rock on the loosened side of the root ball. Rocks as all gardeners know are magic.


In the last 15 years Greg and I have made extensive mental notes about how to grow a huge amount of plants. One thing that we can say unequivocally is that gardeners are too tidy. A mild fall day that coaxes the gardener into “clean up” can spell doom for many plants. And there is scientific hoo haw to back it up. First of all many perennials go through a process of dormancy that can trick the gardener. Top growth loses leaves and looks withered. The first instinct is to cut this off. On many plants this will spell doom. If you look carefully at a plant, Agastache for example, you will notice a low dome of foliage that erupts at soil level below the “dead” woody structure in autumn/winter. What isn’t evident is that what looks like withered stems is actually a form of protection for that ground level winter season set of foliage. The tracery of stems mitigates the coldest temperatures and the semi-woody hollow stems can  provide a source of oxygen to the roots- very essential in our winter saturated soils. Cutting this away exposes this fresh growth and interrupts this dormant status. I’ve done it, Greg has done it and when the first freeze hits-  the exposed dome of semi-dormant foliage is destroyed. This spells doom for the plant. It may look messy but resist all urges to cut the top growth on these following perennials until all possibility of freezing weather has passed- that could be mid-April. Salvia greggii, Salvia x jamensis, Salvia muelleri- pretty much any semi-woody Salvia, if you have any doubts don’t do it. Agastache. Stachys coccinea, Antirrhinum sempervirens are just a few. We are convinced that people are losing these perennials from this kind of over enthusiastic tidiness and then they are proclaiming the plant NOT HARDY.  So try it and you will see. Penstemons, Scutellaria, Zauschneria (Epilobium), Dicliptera. So if you have lost these plants in the past. Just do nothing until all danger of frost has past. If you are a neatnik and you can’t handle this there are some boxwood that may peak your interest.

If you simply must

There are some plants that you CAN cut back in mid winter and they will shine when the time comes. So now that I’ve taken away your winter tidying fun I will give you a list of perennials that definitely benefit from some grooming. Hellebores x hybridus, Epimedium, Ferns, Beesia, Heucheras, There: that should give you something to do.

The weather

So far we are having a very NORMAL November. The polar jet has been going strong despite the continued strong El Nino. After our scorching and dry summer we should all be happy to see moisture again. In the next month there doesn’t appear to be any surprises in the offing. If there is a change in the forecast then I will chime in.  Until then. Happy Thanksgiving from Team Xera.




To Tidy the garden or NOT.

One thought on “To Tidy the garden or NOT.

  1. I keep fall cleanup to a minimum and do as little as work as possible until spring! I’m always amazed that so many people, including gardeners who should know better, bag up their autumn leaves or rake them to the curb, to be hauled away as trash (although some municipalities wisely compost them). I actually collect leaves out of the back alley to mulch my gardens in the fall! By spring half the organic matter is gone anyway, broken down to feed the soil.


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