Time for The CHOP

– Posted in: Garden Design, Perennials

Written by Noel Kingsbury

We’re delighted to have Noel contributing to GGW.  Alot of you are most likely familiar with his name. He has written several books; I have more than a few of them on my bookshelf. As well as being a prolific writer, Noel is a lecturer on plants and gardens. He has been in the nursery business as well as doing garden design. Mostly known for his promotion of naturalistic and wild-style planting design, his gardening interests are wide-ranging, global and eclectic. Two years ago Noel completed a PhD with the University of Sheffield on long-term plant performance; he is hoping to continue research on a number of different fronts. He has a fantastic blog that’s worth checking out.      Fran Sorin

I think everyone on the garden lecture circuit has a least favourite, but frequently asked question from the audience. Mine is “what about small gardens?” my own fault as the most dramatic pictures I show are usually of larger ones. Piet Oudolf’s is “when do I cut my perennials back?” There is a somewhat pained look on his face, as to him this is a rather absurd question. His reply is always “when you want to”.

Once upon a time there was always this idea in gardening that there is a right way and a wrong way to do just about anything. The right way would be explained in a Royal Horticultural Society manual (I always wanted to write a book – ‘Digging a Hole, the RHS Way’).  Nowadays we tend to be more pragmatic, but those new to gardening still yearn for clear and unambiguous instructions.

DSC_0233[1]-Noel Kingsbury 2-cardoon

I think Piet’s answer to the issue of when you cut back deal perennial growth at the end of the year is that this is a question of personal taste.

There is a subtext – which is ‘how wild do you want your garden to be’? Some of us have spent a lot of time promoting the idea of the beauty of seedheads, of grasses waving in the wind or of winter sunlight on the infinite variety of fawns, golds, browns and reds of perennial stems and seedheads. But we have to recognize that it does get tattier as winter progresses, and if we get a rainstorm or high wind, a lot of stems collapse soggily and untidily. In the west of England this happens a lot, so the winter seedhead look has had quite a bit of ‘won’t work here’ type criticism.

Personally I always cut back in two phases. One is in November and involves taking out anything which looks a mess or will do shortly. That leaves grasses, which nearly always stand better than flowering perennials, and a few really sturdy perennial stems. Of the latter I have a particularly fine form of Joe Pye Weed, a Eupatoriadelphus fistulosus from seed collected in North Carolina by Ed Steffek. Very narrow and at 3.4m (9ft) its very statuesque. I’ve even had American visitors drooling over it. Worth leaving for the winter. If you chop everything down and you have a winter wonderland hoar frost then you have nothing to look at. Leave at least a few stems of something and a hard frost can create the most magical effects out of the most unpromising material.

DSC_0027[1]-Noel Kingsbury photo-1

Phase two of the winter chop is in February, just before the first snowdrops poke their noses up (have to avoid crushing them underfoot). That’s when grasses, Jo Pyes, everything goes.

DSC_0235[1]-Noel Kingsbury-eupatorium and grasses

But what do you do with all the debris? As someone who has promoted big perennials, prairie plants, grasses, I have to admit that this can be a problem. There’s a lot of stuff. A lot of it is tough stuff, still in the compost heap a year later stuff…. miscanthus grasses are the worst offenders, they’re so tough they’re almost woody. If you have masses of space and like carting armfuls of dead perennial stuff around you can build yourself compost heap city. But most of us haven’t the space.

What you do with the debris is related to how you cut it down. Secateurs and occasionally shears will do most small-scale dead perennial borders. A hedgetrimmer held at ground level is pretty effective too – most of the work then is gathering up. Increasingly though I like the idea of shredding and just returning the debris as a mulch – no transport miles and just recycles the nutrients. Probably good for invertebrate bio-diversity too. I am told that some folk feed their herbaceous debris into a shredder, but my experience here is that they clog pretty quickly with herbaceous as opposed to woody stuff. But I’m open-minded and waiting for suggestions of a shredder that might do the job well.

Managers of some larger gardens with lots of perennials use a hedgecutter and then ride over the borders with ride-on mower to shred the material. Would be good if I had a ride-on mower. So I tried a brushcutter – the nylon cord of course is no good against miscanthus, ironweeds, goldenrods etc. The metal blade chops off at ground level but won’t shred in the way the cord does. I tried a serrated-edge plastic blade made by Oregon, did a great job, then a metre in the plastic tears and goodbye. I reckon I would have used a whole packet of the little blades just to get half way through my prairie border. So, back to the blade (by the way, I HATE power machinery, all that smoke and noise is so utterly antithetical to the whole spirit of gardening), and I’ve now developed a cut’n’-mulch technique I’d like to share:

  1. cut it all down at the base
  2. rake up debris into low piles in the border
  3. attack with low-angled slashes with the brushcutter blade towards the centre of the heaps until you have got it all down to bits less than a foot long
  4. vaguely tidy up with the rake

OK it looks a bit messy. But most of the people reading this will be American, you get more snow than we do. Snow is the great leveller of dead herbaceous. A good snowfall and it’ll be crushed to the ground as mulch. Nutrients recycled, compost heap left empty for other stuff, nice mulch, goodbye. Wait for Spring to come.

Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

Learn more about Fran and get free resources that will help you improve your life at www.fransorin.com.

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Fran Sorin
31 comments… add one

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Liz January 12, 2011, 4:01 am


Very nice article there by Noel, I can certainly relate to his comment about the snow turning some of the plants into a mulchy mess… I have a lot of that right now after our snow which is too horrible to try to collect up – at least that’s my excuse! 🙂

Sylvia (England) January 12, 2011, 4:52 am

Noel, great to read you here on one of my favourite blogs. I am also a regular reader of your own blog. I agree with you about shredders, they are only good for woody material. I cut up all my perennial debris by hand and compost it. A good reason for doing it in two phases. This is easier than taking it to the tip, especially as a mouse escaped from a bag into the car last time we went!

Thank you for a great post, best wishes Sylvia (England)

A Year In My Garden January 12, 2011, 5:14 am

A good article. At present my garden has nothing to reccomend it except the seed heads of plants that should have been cut back months ago. There’s a lot of beauty in some of this dead stuff though. I quite enjoy the cutting back and clearing process – so I don’t mind taking time over it. Instead of finding ways to mechanise the process I like to cut trimmings into 6 inch chunks as i go – they fit into containers much easier – and then I chuck them on the fern bed out the front where they can be covered with mulch or wood chip and left to rot in their own time.

Kylee from Our Little Acre January 12, 2011, 8:45 am

Hi Noel! Nice to see you on board here! I know exactly what you’re talking about. Same problem here on Our Little Acre. And while we’ve got a lot of space here, some of those things can be a problem all the same. We do composting for much of it, but those grasses and woody bits get thrown in the farm field behind us. They’re still composted in a way, just not by us. (And yes, they do clog the chipper/shredder, so no luck using that for them.)

Interesting that you mention hoar frost, because I just did a short piece explaining hoar frost: What is hoar frost?
We just had one on Sunday. I LOVE a good hoar frost!

Kate January 12, 2011, 9:15 am

Welcome to the blog Noel. As to the least favorite question I get – ‘when do I prune roses?’ to which my standard answer is ‘when it whacks you in the head, whack it off regarless of whether it is Feb, June or October’.
I do the same as Kylee with grasses and twigs – throw them into the bordering hedgerow.

Shawna Coronado January 12, 2011, 9:17 am

Thanks Noel – great post. I have a mixed drought tolerant/native bed I use as a community garden in a public through-way in my neighborhood. Convincing locals to go “native” – best thing ever.

Thanks for the tips,

Shawna Coronado

Laura Mathews January 12, 2011, 9:44 am

Noel, I enjoyed this read very much! I constantly get stuck between my friends who garden with biodiversity foremost in their minds and horticulturalist friends who worry about the spreading of disease that is possible when you leave debris to over-winter. I clean up perennials that look ragged when I feel like it, and then cut down by hand and mow over the debris in the early spring. Thanks for condoning gardening for personal satisfaction and for giving advice to make clean-up easier! Laura

Rebecca Sweet January 12, 2011, 9:49 am

This blog just keeps getting better and better – welcome, Noel! I’m thrilled you’ve joined such a fantastic group of writers!

Living in California, we don’t have the great leveller ‘snow’ (well, part of CA does, but most doesn’t), so many people have semi-dead looking perennials all winter long and are never really sure when to prune them. The biggest challenge here are grasses. So many leave the dead leaves on waaaaay too long, and before they know it the tender new leaves are growing through the old and it’s absolute mayhem. I always tell people to get out there, bend down close and LOOK. If there’s little green shoots, then you’d better chop away!

Frances January 12, 2011, 11:05 am

Hi Noel, I have your books, I read your blog, and now to see your writing here is a joyful day! Knowing WHEN to cut is the problem for us as well, in Tennessee. We use hand hedge trimmers to cut it down, then cut it into smaller pieces. Chop is the word! The emerging bulbs force the timing of the cutting, they are showing now.

Liz January 12, 2011, 11:07 am

My favorite way to get rid of tons of debris is throw it in a big hole. When I worked for a public garden that was quite large, there was always a dumping hole somewhere dug out with a backhoe. When it would get about half full, it was covered a new one was dug. But your way would work if there is no room for a hole.

allanbecker-gardenguru January 12, 2011, 11:25 am

Thank you for acknowledging a difference between British and North American climates and for modifying your advice for us.

Kat January 12, 2011, 12:17 pm

Hi Noel, so good to see you here. Love your positive take on snow. Wish I had some. I’m in the same boat as Rebecca. For me cutting back and pruning starts in November and ends in February with carefully planned areas of attack so I can whittle it all down in manageable bunches. I sort of view my approach as landscape “thinning” rather than pruning.

professorroush January 12, 2011, 1:02 pm

Great article; I haven’t seen Eupatoriadelphus fistulosus, but I’ll look for it as I am happy to drool over it if given the chance. I also agree with the problem of “what to do with the Miscanthus stems”….FYI, a riding lawn mower doesn’t do much good on them either. Luckily, I’m on the prairie here in Kansas and we burn frequently enough to just either use them in new beds as a thick lasagna layer to kill off the existing grass and weeds or they get added to the prairie fires.

gail January 12, 2011, 4:43 pm

Noel, Welcome to Gardening Gone Wild~You’ve joined a lovely group of gardening garden writers. I have several of your books and enjoy them tremendously. I know the conversation over here is going to be enlivened by your presence! gail

Benjamin January 12, 2011, 5:19 pm

I specialize in tall perennials–a 12′ joe pye, a 14′ ironweed–and I am begging anyone to tell me what really works as far as winter cleanup. Last year we had big snowstorms, but that didn’t topple the tall stuff. I refuse to get a shredder because no one says they work well. So, I guess I’ll just keep hand pruning tall dead stuff into tiny bits one bit at a time.

Maybe my best option is to toss it over the fence and let my neighbor, and his acreage, deal with it?

Alice Joyce January 12, 2011, 6:13 pm

Thanks for sharing this practical advice. Good to see you here on GGW!
I still regret not being able to make it to your home in May — maybe we’ll eventually meet in the U.S. after all.

Carolyn @ Carolyn's Shade Gardens January 12, 2011, 6:38 pm

It is an easy decision for me because I have to cut back and mulch everything I can in the fall. As soon as it is warm enough to be outside in the spring, usually February 15, I have to start digging and potting plants for my nursery. However, I always leave my meadow of grasses and fall–bloomers for the spring. No matter how much snow we get they still look good poking through. We run over everything we cut back with a lawn mower or brush hog and return it to the beds as mulch. I wrote two posts about this process if you are interested.

Susan Morrison January 12, 2011, 9:42 pm

Exciting to see all great new contributors to GGW! As much as I love my home in sunny California, when I see photos of grasses looking their most sculptural when touched by a dusting of snow, I get a true flash of envy.

Susan Tomlinson January 13, 2011, 8:05 am

I leave the cutting back of my perennials until the spring out of shear laziness. Then I hack much of it off and tuck it in around the new plants as mulch. Big stuff goes in the compost heap, where I will see it again as compost in about two or three years, since I am too lazy to turn my compost, too.

Steve Asbell January 13, 2011, 9:17 am

Excellent advice, Noel. Welcome to GGW! That whole ‘magical seedhead’ look would be even more intriguing if gardeners were to follow the steps that you outlined, cutting back in stages to better let the architectural silhouettes stand out. Oh, and one more question. ‘What about small gardens’? 🙂 Just kidding…

Frank Hyman January 13, 2011, 10:04 am

We’re on the same wavelength with wacking back–between the first killing frost and before the bulbs come up, depending on how bad a dormant plant looks.

One of the rules I offer to novice gardeners is “if it looks bad, cut it off–the new growth will always look better.”

As for composting the materials, I’ve taken wacking perennials and grasses back with either manual hedge clippers or a cordless hedge clipper and starting at the top, taking a few inches off as I go down. That way short strips of stem and foliage drop to the ground and form a mulch around the plant. A bit more clipping, but way less hauling and chopping. A time saver and it puts organic matter right back where the plant needs it.

Debra Lee Baldwin January 13, 2011, 3:31 pm

Hi, Noel — Hello and a warm welcome from a co-GGW contributor and fellow Timber Press author! I love your advice to “vaguely tidy up with a rake,” ha. I look forward to finding out what you feel passionately about, and what drives you wild, gardening-wise. Any chance you might come to my area (Southern California) any time soon?

Mr. McGregor's Daughter January 15, 2011, 8:45 am

Welcome, Noel! Here in Chicagoland, the best option for prairie plantings is burning, but since I live on a small suburban lot, that’s not available to me. I cut down some things in fall, mostly to prevent rampant self-seeding, and leave the rest until the snow melts in spring, usually in March. Then it’s loppers for the big stuff, hedge shears for the grasses. The thin grasses go in the compost. Fortunately, my village has a community compost pile and picks up plant material, so into the Big Green Monster go the woody stems.

Jan (Thanks For Today) January 15, 2011, 9:02 pm

Welcome to GGW, Noel. I like to ‘feel’ my way through each gardening season and am not much of a ‘rule’ person…so do most of my cleanup between Feb and May. If the weather is decent I’ll get out and cut down what I can and do it, bit by bit, until the spring, when at last things start greening up and the excitement of new life comes again. I think nature continues to ‘work’ for us no matter what ‘route’ we take. Not on a specific schedule, I’m just there to enjoy the ride. Nature will prevail, with or without my intervention. I can help things along…but with or without my intervention, I’ve noticed that things nature seems to have a mind of her own.

James Golden January 17, 2011, 3:08 pm

I burn a lot of the grasses while snow is still on the ground. But fire must be used safely and legally. Don’t ever do it alone, or without adequate preparation, including fire department approval or oversight if necessary.

Marianne Willburn January 18, 2011, 9:46 am

Lovely prose style Noel – very enjoyable!

My compost pile runneth over – so am thankful for a nearby ‘green-dump’ where much of this woody fibrous debris can be recycled without my tender extremities taking chances with a home-shredder. Sadly, due to the sensitivities of the average housing association suburbanite, (I’m not bitter or anything) the site has been moved a bit further away – but at least it still exists!

Isn’t it amusing how people want to recycle just as long as it’s neat and clean and pretty? Can’t tell you how many people I know who faithfully put their plastic in tidy little bins, but refuse to build a compost bin in case the neighbors look askance.

Can’t imagine what they’d say if I let my woody materials turn into a “compost heap city” – how wonderful!

Kathy Fitzgerald January 18, 2011, 10:20 am

As a confirmed neo-Luddite, am new and uneasy in this space. Are comments always mostly preaching to the choir? Loved Susan Tomlinson’s “shear laziness” pun. No reason gardeners can’t play with language as well as dirt. Mr. Hyman–is “wack” a Britishism? On the west side of the pond, we write “whack.” Mr. Kingsbury–looking forward to your next post. I fancy I can hear your voice through the type.

Jasmine Kabuya Racine January 19, 2011, 9:02 pm

I recently discover this fantastic blog. I dare to write a comment and I apologize in advance for my weak english since I’m a Quebec French young gardener.

I found the subjet quite interesting since I’m trying to see what’s best for my type of gardening. Of course you have to adapt your actions to your climate and thanks to your experiences you describe to us, M. Kingsbury, I know a little more what is easier for me. And for once, I’m very happy to have big, long and very snowy winters for they reduce my pile of garden duties!

anne marie sindberg January 20, 2011, 8:39 am

Hello there!
I’m from Denmark and I use the ‘chainsaw-masacre- version’ that is electric hedge clipper. I cut perrennials down at the base, leave it all where it falls and cover with a mulch of musroom compost. Grasses need to be cut into bits from the top and down, (dramatic musik is a help here to keep the momentum going ) and then same procedure, just leave and cover.
Works for me.

Diana January 20, 2011, 1:03 pm

Noel, Fran said you were coming and what a pleasure to see you here! We compost as much as we can and our vegetable compost, always and everything; there is still is no solution for the Miscanthus Giganteus, except to chain saw it down, stack and burn when allowed; and some of the larger debris, i.e. Doug fir branches that fall during the winter have to be carried to a recycling center.

Janet/Plantaliscious January 21, 2011, 6:23 am

I love the idea of having a border large enough to chop with a hedgecutter though I share your dislike of powered garden tools. Wouldn’t the sit-on mower crush any bulbs about to push through though? Happily in my tiny garden a pair of secateurs works just fine, and using them on the three Miscanthus to cut the stems into shorter pieces means I can just compost them. Great to have some practical advice on caring for this type of border that doesn’t try to pretend there is a “right” way.

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