That is the question I ask myself every autumn. Over the years I’ve had differing philosophies. Some years at the herb farm, all of the dead leaves and dying stalks remained in the gardens for the birds to enjoy and to provide shelter for beneficial insects. Some years, knowing that spring at the farm was impossibly hectic, and with 22 display gardens plus the lavender field to tend, most gardens were trimmed and tidied in the fall, especially those near the shop and plant sales areas where early customers ventured most. Now that I’m retired and have only the gardens at my home to tend, I still have the same debate. Lack of time is not the issue. I am the issue. I’ve found I really, really dislike untidy gardens, especially the front garden. Throughout the year guests, UPS, FedEx, the mail carrier, etc. walk along the sidewalk that borders the front garden (shown below ready for a new layer of mulch) so it must always be kept in order. All was trimmed there, and in the nearby front island bed (shown above with a few daylily stalks yet to be trimmed) also visible from the sidewalk. Both of these gardens are somewhat sheltered by the house from our strong west winds so overwintering perennials has not been a problem. Facing East, they get the weak morning sun in winter so freezing and thawing is not a major factor either.
The deck garden was mostly trimmed. Lots of bulbs emerge here in spring, and I can’t tolerate viewing those beautiful early bloomers amid dying stalks and dead foliage. After all, I’ve planted over 2,000 bulbs the last two autumns, plus there was already a decent display in place. However, I did leave half the mums untrimmed as a test. I purchased 36 mums last autumn, early enough for them to get well-established before the onset of frost, and planted them throughout the gardens. I really don’t want to have to buy that many again. However, mums are notorious for disappearing over the winter. Theoretically, those left untrimmed are more protected by their dead branches and their stalks help collect leaves at the base which adds further protection. And the deck garden faces south so it does more of the freeze/thaw routine and it’s exposed to the west winds. Good luck mums, trimmed or untrimmed. Here’s how part of it with untrimmed mums, etc. appears at present: Not tidy!
The potager’s front border was trimmed and tidied, except for half the mums, again as a test. I look at it all winter long from the big windows and even though it is some distance from the house, I couldn’t tolerate the mess. Plus it is also crammed with bulbs for spring, so tidied it must be. Shown above is the south half, ready for new mulch. The two new island beds at each end of the potager were left untrimmed, except for the frozen zinnias removed to plant daffodils last autumn. For some reason, these beds don’t appear that offensive.
That leaves the Blue Shade garden, which few people even notice even during the growing season let alone in winter; the Fairy Garden slope which is also fairly hidden and shaded. Both were left untrimmed.
The Addition Border (above) faces west and is in sun all afternoons. I left it entirely a mess on purpose. I do love the concept of supplying birds, toads, and beneficial insects with food and shelter during the hard months. However, I’ve watched from the bedroom windows, and haven’t really seen any birds gathering seeds from the stalks. Maybe they don’t like cleome, verbena bonarensis, zinnias or marigolds. Or, maybe the fact that we are surrounded on three sides by woods and weeds gives wildlife enough. Regardless, the next nice day will find me there doing clean up before the bulbs emerge further.
I can’t wait for spring to arrive for the evaluation of this test. As of today, no life is showing on any mums, anywhere, trimmed or untrimmed. Of course, I’m hoping that since we had a mild winter here in Indiana all thirty-six mums will start growing. In that case, next fall I can trim ugly mums with a clear conscience. Maybe only untrimmed mums will survive, and I will be forced to learn to live with those brown mounds. Or, maybe none will survive. Maybe I’ll have to adopt the old-time estate gardeners’ practice of digging mums after they bloom, planting them in soil-filled boxes and storing them until spring, when they are divided and potted to grow on a bit before they are returned to the gardens. Only time will tell, but unless there is major greening of the untrimmed plants and death of the trimmed ones, this autumn all the gardens will get major clean-ups so that come spring, I can just sit back, sip my elderflower cocktail and enjoy the thousands of spring bulbs.