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Columns

Learning to Grow: Putting the perennial border to bed for winter

Cut back perennials, such as bee balm, as winter approaches to ensure they get off to a good start next spring.
Cut back perennials, such as bee balm, as winter approaches to ensure they get off to a good start next spring.

Spending some time caring for perennials in the garden now will ensure they get off to a good start next spring. Begin by cutting back perennials prone to diseases, including phlox, bee balm and peonies, and removing their foliage from the garden instead of composting it. Do not cut back evergreen and semi-evergreen perennials, like coral bells, dianthus, epimedium, hellebores and sedges. Instead, leave their tidying until spring.

Gardeners can decide whether or not to cut back the other perennials in their gardens, but should consider leaving those that provide winter interest, perennials that offer food for birds in winter and native plants that provide shelter for overwintering, beneficial insects.

Continue to water perennials until the ground freezes if we don’t receive an inch of rainfall each week. One deep watering is better for plants than several shallow ones.

Keep weeding. Weeds are often first to awaken in spring – eager to take over the garden – and insects and diseases may spend the winter on them.

After a couple hard freezes, apply a two-inch layer of shredded leaves, compost or weed-free straw around plants. A blanket of mulch keeps the soil cold and prevents fluctuations in soil temperature. This is especially important for perennials prone to frost heaving.

Perennials are forced up and out of the ground when the soil experiences repeated periods of freezing and thawing. Their roots are damaged when they are exposed to winter winds and freezing temperatures. A layer of mulch is also beneficial for fall-planted perennials, marginally-hardy plants and ornamental grasses spending their first winter in the garden.

Consider planting some spring-flowering bulbs. The border will burst into brilliant colors from tulips and daffodils, while perennials are emerging from the ground.

Memories fade as snow covers the landscape. Taking photos and making notes now will help gardeners do some winter planning. Notice which perennials performed as expected and which ones disappointed. If there are plants that need dividing or others are bullying their way across the border, make notes to tackle these chores next spring.

Send your perennials off to bed with everything they need for a good winter’s rest.

Diana Stoll is a University of Illinois Extension master gardener for Kane County. The “Learning to Grow” column runs weekly during warmer months of the year. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information. Feedback on this column can be sent to editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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