Caring for one’s garden can be a relaxing, therapeutic activity and a great way to enjoy some exercise outdoors. However, most of us operate on a limited schedule. Here is some practical advice on garden tasks you must do to keep your plants healthy, things you should do, and things you could do if you had the time.
You should feed your plants. The best way to feed your plants is through the soil. When you add nutrients to the soil, you are making them available for the roots to take up. You enriched your soil when you established your garden, but you’ll need to add more nutrients from time to time as they are used up by the plants. An easy way to do this is to add an inch or two of compost on top of your garden bed each fall. Top that with a layer of shredded leaves that will decompose during the winter, leaving the soil ripe for planting in spring.
Nutrient-rich soil provides enough food for most perennials. However, if you would like to provide additional fertilizer during the growing season, we recommend using organic rather than man-made fertilizers. Consult your local garden center for more information.
You should divide some of your perennials every few years. One of the best features of perennials is that they increase in mass every year. After a few years, they need to be divided and replanted again. You’ll know it’s time to divide a perennial if:
The best time to divide perennials is in the spring, just when the foliage is beginning to emerge. There are a few exceptions: early spring bloomers should be divided in the fall, and tall bearded irises should be divided a few weeks after they finish blooming in summer. For more specific information, please refer to the Grower Tips for each plant in our Perennial Encyclopedia.
Perennials with tap root systems, such as Columbine, cannot be divided. However, most perennials have a more fibrous root system that can be divided. Dig and lift the entire clump onto a tarp or into a wheelbarrow. Carefully pull or cut away the younger plants around the edge of the clump to expose the old, woody center. Toss the old, woody part of the plant onto the compost pile and replant the younger divisions. If the clump is not very old, the center may not yet be woody. In that case, the entire root mass can be cut into pieces (like a pie) and replanted. Make sure there are at least 3 eyes or growing points on each division or it will be very slow to reestablish.
You should cut back most perennials in the fall after a hard frost and dispose of their foliage. In late fall after several frosts have triggered the dormancy process in your perennials, it is time to cut back the foliage and get it out of the garden. There are a few exceptions noted in the Perennial Encyclopedia, but most perennials should be cut back in fall. Slugs, snails, and other damaging insects like to lay their eggs in the dormant foliage laying on the ground, so cleaning that up in the fall will help control insect and disease problems the following year.
You should mulch your garden in the spring and/or fall. We learned in Step 5: Building Your Garden that mulch serves a number of functions in the garden. Since it degrades over time, it is necessary to add more from time to time. Check your mulch levels in spring and fall and add more as needed. A three inch layer is ideal. Sensitive, less cold hardy perennials will benefit from an extra deep layer of mulch going into winter, especially in climates with unreliable snow cover.