Yard MD: It's time to clean up garden and prepare for spring

Sep. 26, 2013
Whether to leave perennials standing over winter is a personal choice. Those with interesting textures and shapes create beauty and interest in the garden all winter long.
Whether to leave perennials standing over winter is a personal choice. Those with interesting textures and shapes create beauty and interest in the garden all winter long.
Fall is here, and for the next several weeks gardeners will be cleaning up and preparing for spring. Summer-flowering bulbs, such as this canna, can be dug, dried and stored for winter in a cool, dry place, saving you money next year. / Rob Zimmer/Gannett Wisconsin Media


See a video featuring fall garden cleanup by visiting this story at wausaudailyherald.com/yardmd.


YardMD columnist Rob Zimmer took a tour of northeast Wisconsin to seek out the hottest gardening destinations. From garden centers to public gardens, he found destinations featuring amazing plants, colorful and inspired garden art and decor and much more. Watch each of the videos and use them to plan your next gardening adventure. Find his video series at wausaudailyherald.com/yardmd.


Rob Zimmer serves up a video tip each week. See his YardMD advice on planting fall bulbs on Tuesday at wausaudailyherald.com/yardmd.


7 p.m. Tuesdays: Chat in real time with YardMD columnist Rob Zimmer. This Tuesday, learn about some great fall shrubs at wausaudailyherald.com/yardmd.
On Twitter: Follow YardMD on Twitter for the latest news, specials and unusual plants and garden items. Find him at: @YardMD
On Facebook: Enjoy and become part of the YardMD community of passionate gardeners at www.facebook.com/yardmd.


Fall has arrived, and all across our area over the next several weeks gardeners will be busy preparing their gardens for the long winter ahead.

Beginning gardeners, and even some experienced gardeners, often question what they really need to do in fall to best prepare their gardens for winter and the coming spring.

The answer depends entirely on how much effort you want to put into it, as well as what blooms you are interested in seeing in the spring. For example, if you want to have tulips and daffodils in your garden next spring, now is the time to plant these bulbs. Spring-flowering bulbs need a period of cold in order to bloom.

These are just a few of the many fall gardening activities to consider this autumn.

Divide and grow

Fall is a great time to divide and replant divisions of your favorite perennials. This includes irises, coral bells, daylilies, hostas and more.

Dividing most perennials is easy. Simply dig the clump from the ground, and pry apart divisions of the plants with your fingers. Each division should contain a healthy root system, and a rosette or fan of leaves. Plants that are rhizomes, such as irises and peonies, should be divided into divisions that contain a section of the rhizome, growth points or “eyes,” and roots.

As you lift and divide your perennials, you will see how easy it is to obtain dozens of new plants for free.

To cut or not to cut?

As for the plants that are already blooming, or have finished blooming for the season, how you proceed is a matter of personal choice. Don’t let any of the “experts” tell you what to do in your garden.

Annuals can either be left standing for winter interest in the garden, or to reseed themselves, or they can be pulled completely from the ground, roots and all, and composted or set aside for municipal yard waste pick up.

I leave some annuals standing to allow them to self-seed each winter. This is especially true of cosmos, cleomes, marigolds, sunflowers and morning glories.

Perennials can be treated the same way. Many gardeners prefer to cut perennials back to the ground each fall and dispose of the waste for convenience during the autumn months. This also eliminates clutter in the garden and can help prevent diseases and fungus from becoming a problem.

However, personally, I prefer to leave them standing, for the beautiful winter interest element they provide. A clump of wonderfully textured, snow-covered sedum in winter, for example, can’t be beat for winter beauty. The rattle of tall purple coneflowers in the stiff winter breeze as they scatter their seed over the snow is another priceless winter gardening element.

In some cases, allowing the foliage of the plant to naturally die back and cover the crown of the plant provides the best winter protection. This is true for plants such as hostas, coral bells, hellebores and daylilies.

In addition, many perennials provide precious food for wintering songbirds in your yard and garden.

Look to mother nature when making your decision whether to cut back your perennials or leave them standing. In our prairies, woodlands, and wetlands, wild perennials stand freely all season long.

Saving summer-flowering bulbs

To save money on summer-flowering bulbs, such as gladiolus, begonias, cannas, calla lilies, dahlias and others, you may choose to dig up these bulbs and rhizomes in fall, allow them to dry and store over winter in a cool, dry place. These can then be replanted next spring. You will find, as you dig these, that your supply has probably greatly increased over the summer growing season.

All of these bulbs can be lifted after the first killing frost. Simply dig, cut back the foliage to within a few inches of the bulb and allow to air dry for a week or two.

Store on a basement shelf, or in paper bags. It is not necessary to pack these bulbs in peat moss, newspaper or other fancy methods. For years, I have simply spread these bulbs on the bare basement floor where they sat until the following spring.

Cleanup time

Obviously some perennials and other garden plants do require fall cleanup. A good example is tall bearded iris. Irises should be cleaned up as much as possible during fall to prevent rot and disease. To do this, simply cut back the foliage to within 6 inches of the ground. Divide these plants if they appear overly crowded in the center.

Summer and fall blooming shrubs can be pruned back at this time as well. Hardy hibiscus, most hydrangeas, spirea and nine bark are good examples.

Fall is not the time to be pruning spring-blooming shrubs, at least, that is, if you wish to see blooms in spring. Spring blooming shrubs such as forsythia, lilac, azalea and rhododendron should be pruned immediately after flowering.

When cleaning up garden beds, most plant material can be composted, or tilled directly back into the soil. This is especially true of vegetable gardens. Avoid putting diseased plant material back into the soil or compost bin.

Protecting trees and shrubs

Last winter, gardeners saw an unbelievable amount of damage to trees and shrubs caused by foraging rabbits in winter. To protect your favorite trees and shrubs this winter, you may want to consider wrapping or protecting the trunks.

There are many options available to you, and protecting your trees need not be expensive. A simple roll of chicken wire or wire mesh is all that is needed. Cut to form circular cages that can be wrapped around the trunk to protect from hungry rabbits. There are also many pre-made cages and protectors available in metal and plastic, as well as tapes and hardware cloth .

Be sure the cage and protection is high enough to protect during heavy snows. Anticipate the snow line around the tree or shrub and extend the cage so it reaches at least 24 inches above that mark.

— Rob Zimmer:920-993-1000, ext. 7154, yardmd@postcrescent.com

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