Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

My garden is particularly lush and exuberant, which translates (in non-poetic lingo) to tall, overgrown and a little wild looking, by August.  No shrubs and neat perennials surrounded by a nice framing of mulch live here!  But what pleasure to walk through the paths feeling like I am strolling through a magical world. That is, after all, what my garden is all about.

Massive perennials and grasses tower above my head!  For example, there is the native cup plant, Silphium perfoliatum, with huge leaves that meet at the big square stem and hold water (CUP plant) and yellow daisy-like flowers stretching to the sun at eight feet in the air.  The iron weed, Vernonia noveboracensis, also a native perennial, stands seven feet in my garden and has a spray of purple flowers wafting in the breeze.  Plus there are the tall grasses, the lemon queen perennial sunflowers, hollyhocks, Lucifer flowers, phlox (that are almost four feet tall) and all of the shrubs stretching out and trying to get intimate across the paths.

But then, seemingly out of the blue, it crosses from looking “lush and exuberant” into “overgrown and crazy”.  Even if your garden isn’t quite as bombastic as mine, I think you know what I mean.

At this moment, it is time to grab the clippers and do some CUTTING BACK!  It can seem scary and I have witnessed experienced gardeners stop dead in their tracks, pruners in hand, unable to make the first cut.  But just do it! Over the years, I have learned that cutting back is just a darnn good thing.  Don’t leave the gangly hollyhocks leaning at 60 degrees into the path with 3 flowers at the top.  Take action, decisively cut them back, and refocus the eye on what is left and looking good.  Go ahead, sacrifice a few flowers and be rewarded with a semblance of tidiness and clarity.  And those kind-of-sad-looking perennials, where deadheading is no longer worth the effort, cut back the leggy spindly stuff and before long you will be rewarded with fresh fluffy foliage with a sense of promise.  Rule of the day: If it doesn’t look good, cut it back!  It will come back.

When your plants are jammed in like people on the Number 6 train during rush hour in NYC, try this: Cut stalks, stems or branches back around the edges to provide some air between them and create definition and clarity.  This simple trick brings new life and shape to the garden. Plants flopping or splayed leaving holes in the center of the plant?  Skip propping them up or tying them up, simply cut them back!  It is much easier and will ultimately look better (I promise). Take this opportunity to make an extravagant arrangement for your favorite big vase and enjoy cut flowers in the house. My most recent experience with this: Cone flowers and Annabelle hydrangeas yielded very happy results and praise from my very happy wife.coneflower-&-poppy-mallow-cuddle-B&W

And those winter-damaged shrubs struggling to recover?  Are you waiting, hoping, and praying that they will put out enough new growth to look great again.  It might happen; miracles and fairytales do from time to time, after all.  A more sure-fire solution – you guessed it–cut them back medium-to-hard early on. This will result in a flourish of new growth and fullness that will be like having a new plant.

One caveat: Know your plant to be sure that this is the right strategy. Cutting back works great for most deciduous shrubs and broadleaf evergreens, but it is usually a bad idea for conifers. I recently had a friend bemoaning the state of her purple smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria, and summersweet, Clethra anifolia, after the harsh winter.  I told her to cut them back hard and it would be fine.  Happily I can report that I saw them over the weekend and they looked full and beautiful.

Another handy “cutting back” trick is to manage the size of perennials that get too tall and have a tendency to flop. I do this with my Phlox paniculata “David”, the mildew-resistant white ones, and while they are still almost 4’ tall they are much less floppy and are very full. I also did this with my Summer Nights perennial sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides, to great success. There are many candidates for this type of pruning. The degree of the cutting and the timing require a little reading and experimentation, but it is usually pretty safe if you cut back by a third or even half in mid-June for later blooming perennials. Ironweed, joe-pye weed, tall varieties of rudbeckia, helianthus, phlox, tall asters and bee balm will bounce back from a pretty hard pruning and still produce gorgeous flowers as if nothing ever happened.

So cut it back, Jack, and don’t you look back no more!

Now I am going to cut back on some of my coffee ice cream consumption. J

Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.~