Many of us spent more time outside in the garden this year due to the pandemic. Like the events of 2020, the garden this year had some successes and challenges to overcome, with learning opportunities along the way.
The growing season started out cool and wet, followed by waves of heat and periods of drought. Before we wrap up those final garden chores and settle in for winter, think twice about the tasks to do in the fall what should wait until later.
• Hold back on pruning. Fall triggers thoughts of pruning. The extension office receives a number of questions regarding the best time to prune, with pruning roses as the most common question. Generally, pruning is not recommended until winter arrives.
Fall pruning results in a wound on the plant that takes longer to seal. Ideally, the plants should be fully dormant when pruning. Pruning during the dormant season is recommended, but it’s probably better to wait until late December to start. Anything dead, damaged or diseased can be pruned now. This plant tissue provides no benefit to the plant, so go ahead and nip out those limbs as well as ones that are potentially hazardous.
• Protect our pollinators. The right timing for fall perennial garden cleanup has changed. We previously recommended getting a jump on spring chores by removing dead debris from the perennial garden in the fall.
We have since learned this may not be the best practice for our native pollinators. Many native bees and flies overwinter in the protection of plant’s stems.
Native pollinators are the true pollinating workhorses. These small, seldom-seen workers overwinter in several stages of development from eggs to adults.
Many of these are found tucked inside hollow stems of various perennials and branches. Removing this material in the fall reduces the population of these much-needed pollinators.
Fallen leaves piling up in pockets around the garden also make excellent overwintering protections. Leaves should not be allowed to smother out desirable perennials and lawns, but a cluster here and there is ideal.
• Cleanup timing. So, when is the best time to clean up the perennial garden? While there are no hard and fast rules, there are several guidelines to keep in mind. Spring cleanup should be delayed until the pollinators in overwintering stages have a chance to emerge.
One sign of spring cleanup is consistent temperatures in the 50s for about a week. The second is to wait until we start seeing insect activity. Usually, by then, most beneficial pollinators have emerged.
If you cannot stand a messy garden over winter or hate to wait, there is another option for you. Go ahead and cut away dead debris, but instead of crushing or sending away the waste, stockpile it for later.
Lightly bundle the cut debris and set aside in a hidden corner of the garden. Bundling protects the overwintering stages and allows them to emerge at their own time, yet still be close to the garden. Once the above conditions have been met, the bundle of debris can be removed from the garden.
Late fall is an ideal time to complete much-needed projects in the garden, but sometimes it is best to wait. Waiting to prune or clean up the garden is best for your plants and our native pollinators.
Nelson is Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service ag educator for Garfield County.