When should I cut back my perennials?
You advise leaving perennials standing until Spring. When should I cut them back?
You are absolutely right – I do recommend leaving perennials standing through winter to provide a food source for birds, a place to hide for overwintering insects, stems for praying mantid egg cases, etc. Knowing exactly when to cut perennials back can be a bit tricky with our weather becoming less predictable.
The first rule is that you want to avoid stepping on wet, spongy soil. As the snow melts (hopefully), and the ground begins to thaw out, the soil can be very soggy and susceptible to compaction if you walk on it. Compaction is the enemy of healthy soil, and so also the enemy of healthy plants. Try to wait until he soil has dried out a bit before you go gangbusters cutting back your perennials. Any stems which you can reach, without stepping on the soil, are fair game in spring.
Of course not all insects emerge at the same time, and remaining seed heads can be important sustenance for seed-eating overwintering birds, and migrating birds that return early in the spring. So, I strongly recommend that you stagger your cutting back to allow for some of these more vulnerable creatures to benefit from the resources which are your dead plant stems.
This is especially true with meadows in the Northeast and other areas of the U.S. where meadows would succeed into forest if left alone. Such meadows must be cut down periodically in order to eliminate woody plants that come up on their own. If you cut 100% of a meadow down in early spring, you are eliminating 100% of resources that the old plant stems provide. My advice – stagger your meadow mowing or burning so that you only cut or burn one-third of the meadow each year. Small meadows may be harder to manage this way – so compromise and only cut or burn perhaps one-half of the meadow each year. You will be sparing many creatures that make up our ecosystems.
Enjoy the spring, and don’t forget to sharpen your pruners (a bit of advice I need to take myself!).
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