It's that time of year. The borders are beginning to look tired and many of us are considering making a hasty retreat from the garden as the weather starts to look ominous. What to do with your perennial borders? Cut everything to the ground in a fit of OCD or take the more laid-back approach and leave it to the wildlife until you emerge in the Spring? The choice is yours, but here's a few points worth considering.
When designing your borders, pay a little attention to the closed season; with just a little thought, you could extend the aesthetic display of your border throughout the winter months, without the risk of it looking like no one has bothered to weed for a year.
Some plants simply have to be left. Penstemon, for instance, are tender enough that the risks of hacking them down in the Autumn and losing them to the colder, wetter months is too great. Early Spring frosts will damage tender new growth; leaving last year's growth ensures that the plants can be cut back when the risk of frost has passed, thus allowing the new growth to shoot from the base without risk of being damaged. The problem being, many such plants have very little aesthetic value.
The "leave it for the birds" approach is something that has gained popularity. There is indeed some merit behind the thinking, especially where heavy soils are concerned. Many plants look attractive when tinged by frost in the winter months. Indeed the life-span of the border can be greatly prolonged . The wildlife benefit from the seed-heads and the soil too from the lack of compaction that can be caused by trampling over the borders in the winter months. The trouble is, unlike through the growing season, the border can look messy and many of us can't stand that.
Picking and choosing what you leave is a technique that I favour. Neatly mulched borders quell the nagging OCD but a few cleverly chosen survivors from the previous season's growth can add some interest to the neat but sterile Winter border. Astilbe's and Sedum are two excellent plants to leave throughout the Winter months, as are many of the grasses. On frosty days the seed-heads look fabulous and give the garden a structural element that would otherwise be provided by evergreen shrubs and hedges.. such plants give your perennial border a near 365 day appeal.
In the picture groups of Sedum can be seen in Autumn. They retain their colour, will fade to brown and capture the most on colder days. The Yucca also adds to the drama. Much of the border will be cut down and mulched which will further highlight the plants that have been chosen to stay the course.