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[November 10, 2008]
With a severe cold snap Sunday evening and
Monday morning, we definitely had more than "frost on the pumpkin"
-- we froze it. This is our signal to use a decent day to finish up
those outdoor chores remaining. One of the last to be done is taking
care of perennials.
Many perennials are better left standing over the winter than
cutting them down. There are several reasons for this. In addition
to many of the perennials having attractive foliage or seed heads,
they offer food resources for birds. Many birds find the seeds of
perennials particularly tasty.
stems of perennials also offer a place for some birds to hide
during the winter. With some marginally hardy perennials,
leaving the stems up for the winter aids in overwintering. The
foliage helps to insulate the crowns. Mums seem to benefit a
great deal from this practice. Another reason to leave stems
standing is that if the perennial is a late riser in the spring,
the stems will help to mark the spot and prevent any accidental
digging in the area that might harm the underground portions of
Cutting back perennials in the fall may be something you
would want to do especially if you were bothered by foliage
diseases. Removing the old foliage would be a positive in this
case, as it helps to reduce the amount of disease present to
infect next year's foliage. Removing foliage can also be one of
pure aesthetics. Some gardeners like to see standing perennials
in the winter and others don't.
When perennials are cut down, do so after they have gone
dormant. This is usually after the plants have experienced
several hard frosts. The severe freeze took care of that for us.
Cut the plants down to within 2-3 inches of the crown. Cutting
too close can result in winter injury on some perennials due to
the fact the buds for next year's growth are right at or above
Remember, mulches help keep temperature and moisture
conditions more stable. Mulching after the ground is frozen will
keep mulched plants dormant for a longer period of time. A depth
of 2 to 4 inches is sufficient. Materials may be anything, but
the best ones will not pack and smother. Oak leaves are great,
while silver maple leaves are not. Straw also works well. If you
have problems with mulch being blown off the area, you can make
a short enclosure of chicken wire, hardware cloth or any other
[to top of second column]
As mentioned in an earlier column, take advantage of unfrozen ground
to provide moisture for all perennials as needed. Rain or wet snow
can provide the moisture, but usually the weather is dry enough to
have benefit from some added water. Evergreens are particularly
sensitive to drying out during the winter months.
Last column for the season
This will be the last regular offering for the season. There will
be some updates posted in the
"In The Backyard" blog on our Web page at
I've enjoyed providing the column again this year.
I'll close with some of the folk tales of winter weather
prediction. One of the most famous refers to the woolly bear
caterpillar. The longer the black bands on the banded woolly bear
indicates a more severe winter. The woolly bear has 13 body segments
and these correspond with the 13 weeks of winter. The head, of
course, is the beginning of winter. Squirrels burying more nuts than
usual, thicker fur on a rabbit's foot and more fall spiders than
usual are also signs of a bad winter.
Of course hindsight is 20/20, and there will still be very cold
days even in a mild winter. I hope you enjoy your winter, however it
turns out, and I'll be back with you on a regular basis as spring
University of Illinois Extension, Logan County]