10 Perennials You Can Cut Back In Fall (& 10 You Shouldn’t)

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The gardening season is coming to a close, and if you live in cold climates, your perennials may already be starting to drop leaves and enter dormancy. Don’t worry – it’s completely normal – but it does leave some gardeners wondering what to do next. Should I cut my perennials or leave them standing for winter? When should I cut back my perennials?

In short, it depends on your plants and where you live. Gardeners in cold climates benefit from leaving their foliage standing to protect their crowns. A plant’s crown is where the stem meets the roots, usually at the soil line, and new growth will emerge in the spring. Leaving the foliage provides some insulation and protects the crown from snow. That said, not every plant needs this extra protection during winter. Some even benefit from being cut back in the fall, whether it’s to prevent disease or remove obstacles for spring growth.

We’ll spell out which plants you can cut down in fall and which ones should be left standing until spring. Like any decision you make in your garden, it’s completely up to you. Use this blog as a guide, not a rulebook!

Perennials to cut in the fall:

1.) Phlox

Phlox may shine from late spring to the end of summer, but when cooler temperatures arrive, they start to fizzle out. We suggest cutting them back in late fall for one main reason: powdery mildew. Phlox is susceptible to powdery mildew, especially when the foliage is wet for prolonged periods. Even mildew-resistant varieties, like those introduced by Proven Winners, have a higher chance of infection during cool and wet fall months.

*Destroy any foliage with symptoms of powdery mildew and disinfect pruners before trimming other plants.

Close up of bright pink phlox blossoms
Purple bee balm blossoms

2.) Bee Balm (Monarda)

Similar to phlox, bee balm (or Monarda) is susceptible to powdery mildew, especially during damp fall months. To prevent the disease from returning the following year, we suggest cutting the plants back in the fall and removing any debris – no matter the variety! It will give your plants a clean start next season.

*Destroy any foliage with symptoms of powdery mildew and disinfect pruners before trimming other plants.

3.) Yarrow (Achillea)

While some perennials look magical in winter – others don’t – and that’s okay. When winter arrives, the spent foliage on yarrow (or Achillea) is pretty… unattractive. We suggest cutting it back in the fall foliage – but not all. Late in the season, yarrow pushes out new basal leaves. Cut any old foliage, but keep the new basal leaves to protect the crown during winter.

*Pro-tip: cut the fresh flowers to enjoy indoors, or leave spent flowers stalks standing for some winter interest.

Close up of the peach blooms of the firefly peach sky yarrow
Spike Speedwell purple flower spikes

4.) Spike Speedwell (Veronica)

Spike speedwell (or Veronica) may look whimsical from spring through fall, but they do fade quickly once the first frost hits. Similar to yarrow, we suggest cutting them back to their basal foliage, which also grows near the crown late in the season. It’ll clean up their appearance and prepare them to spring back to life when winter ends!

5.) Astilbe

The lacy, fern-like foliage on astilbe stays green and healthy spring through fall but quickly fades to yellow and brown after the first frost. While the foliage turns quite lackluster, the spent flowers keep their whimsical texture. We recommend cutting back the foliage to tidy up the garden, but keeping the spent flowers for winter interest.

*Don’t like the look of spent blooms in the garden? Try cutting them for dried arrangements indoors.

Fluffy Red astilbe flowers
Close up of the purple and white blooms of the Columbine

6.) Columbine (Aquilegia)

Columbine (or Aquilegia) is an old-fashioned favorite for its springtime display of colorful flowers. The best way to set it up for success in spring? Clear out any old foliage or flower stems in late fall. It will prevent disease and pests from returning, plus remove any obstacles for new growth in spring!

7.) Daylilies (Hemerocallis)

Daylilies (Hemerocallis) grow in cheerful clumps of grass-like foliage that droop and turn brown in the winter. Is it necessary to cut back in the fall for plant health? No, but some gardeners prefer a cleaner look through the winter months. Save yourself the mess in spring by cutting them back after they enter dormancy!

Light orange blooms of the Rainbow Rhythm Orange Smoothie Daylily
Wavy blue-green foliage of the Waterslide hosta

8.) Hosta

While keeping hosta foliage standing during winter will protect the crown, there is one good reason to cut them back in the fall. Slugs! Slugs lay their eggs in dead hosta foliage and removing leaves after frost will deter slugs from returning in spring. Especially if your garden is plagued with slugs, we recommend cutting them in late fall.

*Still unsure? Cut it down partially, leaving 4-6 inches standing above ground, and then remove all debris.

9.) Catmint (Nepeta)

Catmint’s (Nepeta) aromatic foliage stays fresh from spring to fall but quickly turns yellow and brown once frost hits. Some gardeners see this as an eyesore and like to trim it back for a cleaner appearance. If you do decide to cut it back, we do advise leaving at least 4-6 inches standing above ground to protect the crown over winter.

Cat sniffing catmint with purple blooms
two May Night Salvia shrubs with vibrant indigo flower spikes

10.) Salvia

Salvia is a star in the summer garden but does leave some to be desired during winter. Flower stalks typically flop and turn brown, similar to their foliage. Some gardeners choose to keep it standing until spring, while others trim it back for a cleaner appearance. It’s up to you! To cut it back, trim it down to the new basal growth, which protects the crown over winter.

Perennials not to cut back in fall

1.) Coral Bells (Heuchera)

Coral bells (or Heuchera) boasts colorful foliage from spring to fall, and even through the winter in warmer climates. Whether coral bells are evergreen or not in your zone, we don’t suggest cutting them back in late fall. Why? Their foliage protects their crown through the winter. All you have to do for another year of vibrant color is tidy the plant up in spring!

rainbow foliage of coral bells
Orange You Awesome coneflowers with light orange blooms

2.) Coneflowers (Echinacea)

Coneflowers (Echinacea) are long-blooming perennials that add vibrant color from summer to frost, but it doesn’t stop there. Their blooms provide interest long after they fade with prominent seed heads. Birds and other wildlife (including goldfinches, blue jays, and cardinals) love the seeds and commonly visit them throughout fall and winter. We suggest leaving them standing in winter to add texture and life to the winter garden, but you can always cut them if you’d prefer!

3.) Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)

Similar to coneflowers, black-eyed Susans (or Rudbeckia) also boast prominent center cones that can be left standing all winter long. You can find birds perched on their spent seed heads in late fall and winter, which adds a little interest and excitement to the winter garden! If you prefer a tidier winter appearance, cutting them won’t hurt the plant either.

*We love how their black dried seed heads look in dried flower arrangements in fall and winter!

Black-eyed susan flowers with yellow blooms and brown eyes
ornamental grasses with fluffy tan seedheads

4.) Ornamental Grasses

Planting ornamental grasses is one surefire way to add four seasons of interest to your garden – even though it’s only a perennial! Ornamental grasses bring height, color, movement, and structure to the landscape. Even when it’s dormant in winter, the foliage takes on rich gold hues and keep their structure until they’re cut down in spring.

*Dried plumes hold snow and frost beautifully in the landscape, or you can bring them indoors as decoration.

5.) Ferns

The best part of ferns? Watching their new fronds emerge in spring and unfurl as summer approaches. The fronds add feathery texture and lush green, purple, or silver hues to the garden. While they may lose their color in winter, they continue to add texture and protect the crown until new fiddleheads appear the following spring. Wait to trim back old fronds in spring once you see new ones emerging!

Dark green foliage of the crested surf Japanese Fern
close up of the pink blooms of the Cinderella Milkweed

6.) Milkweed (Asclepias)

As a native perennial, milkweed (Asclepias) plays a vital role in supporting pollinators – all year long. In spring, its foliage serves as a food source for Monarch caterpillars. In summer and early fall, clusters of nectar-rich flowers feed butterflies, birds, and bees. Leave your milkweed standing in late fall and winter to provide shelter for pollinators that make nests in hollow stems. They’ll thank you in the spring!

7.) Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia)

Originally from South Africa, red hot poker (Kniphofia) is well adapted to heat, humidity, and bright sun. Winter temperatures? Not so much, even though some varieties are hardy down to zone 5. We suggest leaving the foliage standing all winter long to protect the crown. Flowers stalks can be removed, but wait to tidy up the rest until spring!

Red Hot Poker with yellow flower stalks
purple/blue small geranium flowers

8.) Cranesbill (Geranium)

Cranesbill (or Geranium) are hard-working perennials in the garden – even in the winter months. They’re semi-evergreen, which means they will keep their green foliage through winter in mild climates. Wait to cut the foliage back until spring to enjoy some extra greenery through the winter!

*If cranesbill is not evergreen in your zone, you can always cut it back if you’d prefer.

9.) Stonecrop (Sedum)

They may look similar to succulents grown indoors, but stonecrops (Sedum) are surprisingly winter hardy. During the winter months, their foliage and flowers will die back, but we don’t suggest cutting them. Why? The spent flower stalks on upright sedums offer texture, color, and food for wildlife. Plus, they look delightful as they hold freshly fallen snow!

Autumn Joy Sedum with pink blooms
Shrub with vibrant green foliage and light pink and yellow blooms

10.) False Indigo (Baptista)

The garden is usually quiet in the winter from blankets of snow that absorb sound. False indigo (Baptisia) changes that by adding texture, movement, and noise (even though it’s dormant). Spent flowers give way to black pods in fall, resembling little maracas that are filled with seeds. They rustle in the winter winds and create a little music while doing so!

Written by: Miranda Niemiec, click here to read bio.

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