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Vermont Garden Journal: Some New Ideas For Perennial Garden Care

After the birds are finished picking out the seeds of echinacea and Black-Eyed Susan plants, simply chop the plants into small pieces and leave them on the soil.
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After the birds are finished picking out the seeds of echinacea and Black-Eyed Susan plants, simply chop the plants into small pieces and leave them on the soil.

For years in fall, I've faithfully cut back my herbaceous, perennial flowers; such as peony, hosta, phlox, and echinacea to clean up the beds for winter. But now my thinking has changed.

It all started when I asked myself, why remove all that plant matter at all? Usually I cut the foliage to the ground, move it to the compost pile and next year move some compost back into the beds. But why create all that extra work? Why not compost the foliage in place?

My horticultural brain went into overdrive repeating all the times I've heard about removing diseased and insect-infested foliage from the garden so they won't re-infest plants next spring. But what about plants that are mostly healthy, or have diseases that always show up anyway, such as powdery mildew?

So now I chop and drop. My new favorite garden tool for the task is a manual hedge trimmer. After the birds are finished picking out the seeds of my echinacea and Black-Eyed Susan plants, I simply chop the plants into small pieces and leave them on the soil. The organic matter protects the plant roots in winter. By spring, most of the material has decomposed and I saved myself alot of extra work. But what about the overwintering pests? If the plants were heavily diseased or pest-infested, I still remove them. But for all the others, if a few harmful insects survive around the plant, then a few beneficial ones will as well. Leaving the tops as they would naturally in the wild, simply gives all the creatures, good and bad, a place to live.

I have to warn you, if you're still attached to the aesthetic of beautifully cleaned and tidy perennial beds, this method may not suit you. It's messy. But if you're willing to give it a try, chop and drop the foliage.

Now for this week's tip: cover strawberry beds with a layer of hay or straw to prevent them from freezing, thawing and heaving in winter.

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