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The Plant Medic

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Skipped fall gardening chores? Don’t panic

Q. I guess I am a born procrastinator, because I never got around to cutting back my perennials and ornamental grasses this year. I also never planted some tulips I purchased in September. What should I do?

A. It is easy for us in today’s world to become so busy, we never get around to completing some fall garden tasks. The first thing to do is relax. Life – and the garden – will survive.

Many gardeners are now leaving the foliage of their perennials uncut during the winter months. Yes, I know the books and experts all tell us to cut everything back in the fall, but many critters benefit from having the foliage and seeds of plants available for food and shelter during the winter. In my backyard, many species of birds still peck away at the seeds of my perennial flowers or use the foliage as cover. To me, it is a wonderful sight to look out the window during the winter at all the birds.

Our “pet” rabbit that has been a part of the neighborhood all summer still visits the backyard and uses plants as cover. Our backyard squirrels are fat and sassy as they also come down to graze on the birdseed my wife, Miss Frugal, puts out each day.

The seed heads of grasses, especially native grasses, are a wonderful winter food source for birds and animals. The foliage and seed heads are meant to remain during the winter. Grasses give birds shelter and are wonderful perches for birds to survey the surrounding area. The foliage of grasses is often striking against snow – and a snow-dusted grass is truly a work of art.

It is important to cut back the foliage of perennials sometime before the spring begins, preferably before daytime temperatures begin to regularly climb into the 40s. Leaving foliage on plants all year can promote disease and insect problems in the landscape. I always wait to trim back grass when I notice the beginning of growth in the spring. This sometimes takes a while depending on weather conditions. In northern Indiana, this usually occurs sometime in April.

Make sure the tulip bulbs are stored in a cold area such as an unheated garage. Wait for a winter thaw period, and put the bulbs in the ground as soon as you can. Sometimes stored bulbs planted in late winter or very early spring will be delayed, but that is a small price to pay for procrastination.

One could also force the bulbs indoors by planting the bulbs in a container filled with good potting mix. Store the container in a cold area for 10 to 15 weeks; and then place the container in a sunny window. You will be rewarded with a burst of color long before spring bulbs poke their heads out of the ground.

Your procrastination can pay off with dividends – for you – and the critters that are a part of our natural world.

The Plant Medic, written by Ricky Kemery, appears every other Sunday. Kemery is the extension educator for horticulture at the Allen County branch of the Purdue Extension Service.