With the worst of the weather (hopefully) out of the way and plants now waking up from their winter sleep, now is the perfect time to cut back all of last season’s spent plant material. We have been working through all areas of the gardens carefully cutting down old stems of ornamental grasses and herbaceous perennials to make way for this season’s fresh new growth. It’s always a bit of a juggling act as we try to leave the material standing for as long as possible to provide valuable shelter and food (from seedheads) for our wildlife, and also to ensure that we keep some interest in the borders over winter for our visitors. However, at the same time we have to be mindful of the fact that spring bulbs will be emerging and we don’t want their display to be ruined by a blanket of last seasons spent material, or worse still to be trampled by our muddy boots! In areas where we know there are a lot of early spring bulbs, such as snowdrops for instance, we try to get in the borders early before the bulbs first start appearing and clear some of the material that has fallen over and is covering the ground.
Trainee Cathy cutting back spent Asters.
We begin cutting back the main bulk of the plants at the end of February, using a mixture of snips, secateurs and loppers depending on the thickness of the stems. In the garden we prefer to use hand tools over power tools as we find that brush-cutters etc, create a lot of mess and we still have to go back and use snips or secateurs to neaten up what we’ve just cut. The noise from some power tools is also a consideration; we want our visitors to enjoy the garden so we try to keep noise to a minimum. It’s also very important to check for sheltering wildlife before starting to avoid any surprises. Large ornamental grasses in particular are perfect for sleepy hedgehogs, or ideal nesting spots for moorhens if positioned near water, so it’s good to keep this in mind before clearing.
Miscanthus in the Water garden bundled up with string to make cutting back easier
Miscanthus can sometimes be a bit of a brute to cut back due to its height and thickness of stems, so we tie them up with string before cutting; this way it stops them falling in all directions when they’re being cut, and the material can then be removed to the compost heap as one whole bundle.
Sometimes grasses start to put on fresh growth before we’ve had time to cut them back. While some can be trimmed back without it affecting the overall look, it’s always best to avoid damaging the new growth, particularly if the new flowers have started to emerge. Cutting back early in the year (February- early March) will help to avoid this.
Old and new growth on herbaceous perennials- Aster trifoliatus subsp. ageratoides 'Ezo Murasaki'
With herbaceous perennials it’s usually easy to see any new growth coming from the crown of the plant making it easy for old stems to be carefully cut down as low as possible avoiding this fresh growth.
Many insects will still be overwintering within these stems and seedheads so, if possible, add the material to a compost heap where they will still have shelter and can wake up and go about their business without too much disturbance.
Ladybirds sheltering in the seedheads of Campanula lactiflora
Title Image: Cut back Osmunda regalis (Royal Fern)