Cutting back


February is the month when I clean up the garden. Some gardeners do this in the fall but I like to leave plants as they are because I see birds using them throughout the winter.

The pruning of roses is the major chore of the month but I wait until the last week of February to do that. In the meantime, I cut the perennials and ornamental grasses back. I still love the structure the woody perennials and grasses give to the garden so in a way, it is a sad chore.

There are many asters and I cut them off at ground level. Do you see the crocus emerging on the left side?

 There are other signs of life getting ready to take off. Look at the buds on the tree peony  (a plant that is not cut back) -

The penstemons are really unruly this time of year and need a good shearing. 

After cutting a plant back like this, it is surprising how much space you think you have when you see all of that bare ground around it. I have to watch myself or I will be cramming new plants into those spots.


It looks like Lantana 'Miss Huff' has survived the winter and that makes me very happy. Of course, we've had a very mild season. From what I hear, lantana does not like the winters here and most gardeners treat them as annuals. It is good to wait until late winter to prune lantana to avoid having water collect in the stems and freeze. I cut this completely back to the ground today (and forgot to take an "after" shot).

Gaura, before and after -

Another sweet success - the Honey Bush (Melianthus Major). Planted on the south side of the house in a protected area, it has looked good all winter. I really hated to cut it down -

 I normally wait a few more weeks before cutting clematis back. However, I did take down the gauzy remnants of 'Bill MacKenzie' today -

 Winter hardy fuchsias are also sheared completely back to the ground. Look at those new leaves! -

 When it comes to hydrangeas, I only remove the spent bloom heads. The only hydrangeas that should be cut back completely are the Annabelle and paniculata (Panicle types). The new 'Endless Summer' type varieties can also be cut. If you don't know what kind of hydrangea it is, just cut off the spent blooms and do not cut below any emerging growth.


 The buddleias (butterfly bush) should be cut back completely. I did not get around to them today but I will be doing that within the next few weeks.

Last, but not least, are the ornamental grasses. Some of the smaller ones, like this Japanese Blood Grass, is easily cut with pruning shears -

Pennisetum 'Red Buttons' is also easily cut with either pruning shears or hedge trimmers -

 For larger grasses, like this Miscanthus 'Goldbar', it can be a big and messy job. I devised an easy way to do this quickly when I gardened in Alabama. First, I take a bungee cord and tied it around the middle of the clump -

 The purpose of the cord is to avoid having to pick up millions of grass blades.

 Using the hedge trimmers, it is easily sliced across the bottom -

 Then you have the bundle which can easily be disposed of -

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy


  1. Seeing all those little bits of green almost makes me want to get out and start cutting back things. If it wasn't going to be 12F tonight I might have considered it. It will surely be the last of the real cold...I hope. It won't take much to get me into that neat and tidy mode. I have to say I would probably do as you mentioned and cram something into an empty looking spot and be sorry for it later. ha..

  2. Can't resist playing in the garden when the weather is so mild. Toward the end of winter all the dry aster and grasses look quite disheveled, so was also in the garden cleaning up. I too must hold back from planting in all the newly exposed ground... because it will not be exposed for much longer. Your bungee cord trick is brilliant!

  3. This is my month to do winter cleanup as well. I find it so satisfying to be out with my pruning shears and to deliver all the garden waste to the compost bin. Soon the garden begins to look cared for once again.

  4. You may not be done but you've certainly been busy! I started cutting back here last month but developed a ganglion cyst in my wrist from the repetitive stress and had to ease up for a while so I'm not done yet either. I had to laugh at your comment about having to watch yourself about cramming new plants in the areas you clear - I'm afraid I do that all the time ;)


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