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  • Writer's pictureDarcy Morehouse

Fall garden stuff you MUST do, or...

Do whatever the f-- you want

Fall is the perfect time for a garden refresh! Most perennials can be cut back making it easier to split and thin them, and it's prime planting season for some of our favorite plants like azalea, dianthus, and sedum. But DON'T prune anything... Well, you can prune some stuff. Sometimes. And some stuff should be planted now, but others you can't plant until spring, and some perennials you can let stay over the winter and just let them be their creepy dead selves, but actually you shouldn't cut back ANY perennials because they make great homes for hibernating bugs, except if you don't want bugs, then you should cut them all. Easy, right?

There are so many freaking rules for fall pruning and garden cleanups, and the internet is useless (says someone from the internet).

So, here is Darcy's one rule for fall garden cleanup (and life in general):

Do whatever the f-- you want.

In the end, it's your yard. There are no rules. Read up on the pros and cons (or don't) and then make the call that works for you.


Pruning Trees & Shrubs

The rule is you shouldn't prune any trees or shrubs in the fall. The two major reasons are 1. because you could be cutting off next years blooms and 2. pruning stimulates growth, and new growth might get killed off or at least severely stressed out by the upcoming crappy New York winter (ugh). The best time to prune most shrubs and trees is while they're dormant, so late winter into really early spring.

But here's the thing. YOU CAN DO WHATEVER YOU WANT. You can always trim off any dead branches and suckers, doesn't matter what time of year. But you can also absolutely do major pruning now too, if it really bugs you, AND you're willing to accept the downside of fewer blooms and some potential winter die-off. If you don't care because your forsythia is roughly the size of your garage, then by all means, hack away! Would it be better for the plant to wait until after the first couple of frosts? Sure! But is it better for your mental health to just get the damn thing under control? Your call.

Cutting Back Perennials

There are all kinds of pros and cons here too when it comes to cutting back the perennials in your garden. Most articles will push cutting everything way back, and you totally can, but there are some pros to leaving the plants there over the winter. Fortunately for you, I LOVE lists, so here we go!

  • Pro: Some foliage is really pretty when it's dried, and adds visual interest to your garden

  • Con: We live in upstate New York... All foliage will be covered in 2-3 feet of snow

  • Pro: Dead plants make AWESOME homes for hibernating insects!

  • Con: Do you even want a bunch of insects in your garden?

  • Pro: Seeds from some flowers, like black eyed susan and false indigo, can feed birds throughout the winter

  • Con: Seeds can spread and within a couple of years your mixed flower bed (and probably part of your driveway) is now ONLY CONEFLOWER

  • Pro: You can be oh-so-lazy and not do it, just because you don't feel like it!

  • Con: You'll probably be cleaning up a bunch of dead plant matter in the spring...

Whatever you decide to cut back (if anything), a good and easy rule of thumb is to cut the plants down to like 3-5 inches above the ground. Use sharp shears, pruners, or even good electric hedge trimmers if the plants aren't super delicate.


Fall is actually a really good time for planting and transplanting. It's cool, there is plenty of rain, and there is sunshine, but not enough to scorch the plants. It's so much easier to split and transplant a patch of lilies or hosta after they have been cut back at the end of the season.

The downside to doing plantings in the fall is that it's pretty slim pickings at the nurseries and garden centers. ALTHOUGH--you can find some great end-of-season deals (and sometimes freebies!) when the nurseries are selling down their stock.


Check out some more of our essential fall posts here!



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