By Julie A. Martens
As spring tiptoes through the landscape, it’s hard to believe a few green shoots will become a lush tangle of color (above), but that’s the magic of a cottage garden. Of course it doesn’t happen magically—there’s some effort involved.
In early spring the big project is spring cleaning, which requires pruners and leather gloves. Pruning perennials prepares the way for fresh growth. A good cleaning also helps keep pests and diseases in check. Not sure what to cut? Here’s a perennial pruning primer from my Mid-Atlantic garden.
Out with the Old
Some gardeners clean up perennial stems in fall. In my cottage garden I let some stems linger to provide winter interest and seeds for foraging birds. Stems also trap leaves that help protect plant crowns. It’s tempting to remove last season’s leftovers with a tug, but that can dislodge emerging shoots. Instead grab the pruners. Sharpen them first, if you didn’t over the winter.
Cut stems of bee balm, goldenrod, baptisia and purple coneflower close to the ground. Break pruned stems and toss them onto the compost pile.
Timing: Tackle this job as soon as you can get into the garden. It’s easier to prune perennials before new shoots are a few inches high.
This group of perennials includes butterfly bush, lavender and Russian sage. These plants form a woody base and stems. When you prune you want to leave some of that woody base intact, so you’ll cut to remove existing stems and reduce plant height.
In the Mid-Atlantic, trim butterfly bush 12 to 18 in tall; snip Russian sage to 6 in high.
On lavender plants, remove 1 to 2 in at the end of stems.
Timing: Prune while plants are dormant and stems look lifeless. Other timing clues include opening tree buds and bulb shoots. Be warned: If a late, hard frost comes, semiwoody plants could die to the ground. But if you follow these guidelines on pruning heights, you’ll still have stems in place to protect plant crowns. Eventually, new sprouts should generate from roots and poke through soil.
Before and After
Before spring pruning my cottage garden is a tangle of stems.
After pruning the sprawling perennial clumps become tidy tufts, and color isn’t far off.