In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
November, 2000
Regional Report

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This red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Baileyi') provides a colorful salute to season's end.

Autumn's Last Hurrah

Our first frost usually arrives in late November and transforms the garden overnight. Trees once decorated with red and yellow leaves will look naked, with only gray-brown branches poking skyward. The leaves seem to fall silently, almost in unison, leaving a colorful blanket beneath the limbs.

To Prune or Not to Prune

During the last clear, sunny days of fall I always wrestle with the same problem. Should I take advantage of the warm weather and cut back the tender perennials or wait until they die back on their own? Cutting them down now is easy work during the last warm rays of sunshine even though they're still green. If I wait until frost kills them, I'll have to brave the elements to clean up the garden. Plant health or creature comfort? Do I follow the plant's schedule or mine?

Letting Them Go Dormant

All of my research into this dilemma indicates that I should let my plants go dormant on their own. Experiencing the colder and shorter days of autumn prepares a plant for the coming frost. This gradual conditioning helps harden-off plants, getting them ready for winter. As long as the leaves remain on a plant, they're busy providing nutrients to the roots. When frost finally arrives, the plant will slip easily into dormancy.

My Solution

With all that said, I still love working in the garden when the air is crisp, the ground is dry, and the sun is warm. Waiting until after first frost means I'll probably have to don mud boots and a raincoat to get the job done.

So I'll compromise. I'll cut back the more vigorous perennials with fibrous root systems and leave the tops alone on anything that grows from a tuber, corm, or bulb. I think that those underground storage organs will benefit most from the last-minute rations from the green leaves and that the fibrous-rooted perennials more easily tolerate early beheading. Dividing garden cleanup into two sessions makes me happy and doesn't seem to bother my plants in the least.


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