The Garden Life: Perennials keep garden interesting year-round



Longtime gardeners have learned to add interest to the garden by allowing structural perennial plants to remain through the winter months.

In the past, we made it a point to remove spent plant material in early winter. With the continuous introduction of interesting seed heads, sturdy plant stems and hardy ornamental grasses, many gardeners have come to accept the tawny coloration of dried foliage in beds and borders through winter.

This spring, consider adding perennial garden plants specifically for their interesting winter characteristics. Look for sturdy, structural plants that won’t need to be cut back until spring. A silhouette of sturdy stems will add structure to the winter void of a warm-season planting border. Ornamental grasses are a perfect example. Most of the varieties that we plant in our gardens will continue to add visual interest when other perennials have already been cut to the ground.

Even if snowfall or a freezing rain lays them flat, ornamental grasses will rise again as soon as they dry out.

As soon as new plant growth begins in early spring, it’s time to cut

the old stems down to the top of the new growth. Do this before the new growth gets too tall and becomes entangled with last year’s blades. This will be a signal to cut back other perennial plants as they add new growth with the arrival of spring.

We all have different levels of tolerance in our own gardens. Some cannot abide a single weed while others easily overlook weeds for any sign of seasonal interest. It’s important to get to know your personal limits. If the look of a plant displeases you in a particular season, it’s time to cut it back to a neat mound or down to the crown, depending on the plant. If you find yourself displeased with a plant for more than one season, it’s time to remove it from your garden.

Any distinctive seedpods can be left on the plant as long as possible. This is especially beneficial to those of us who garden organically and rely on attracting birds to help with insect control. As you clean up beds and borders, make sure that there is still food and water available for the birds that are drawn to your garden over the winter months.

One way to see more clearly and to locate any broken branches and dead wood that need to be pruned out of shrubs and small trees is to take a stroll around your garden in a different direction than usual. Look closely at areas of the garden you might be in the habit of ignoring. Use sharp, clean tools to make disease-resistant pruning cuts. Continue tidying up the backside of beds and borders as you make your way around the garden.

I always enjoy the brief lull before spring comes rushing back. After the snowbells bloom and as the crocus emerge from the soil, there is a distinct pleasure in looking forward to the voluminous, active growing months ahead. Think about what you would like to see coming up in the garden next year at this time. Look over your journal and make a note of what plants you should add this spring.

Before you really have to get to work in the garden, turn your attention to the storage area where you keep your tools and garden implements. This is a great time to clean, repair or throw away. The window of opportunity to have power equipment serviced before it will be needed for work in the garden is closing fast.

I wish that I were a bit more of a neat freak in the garden. At least the tidy gardener knows exactly when a plant looks bad and takes care of the issue right away.

However you garden and whatever you decide to do in the garden this week, stop for a moment and listen to the whisper of the fading ornamental grasses as they bid adieu to the winter season.

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at