Skip to main content

6 plants you should cut back to keep your garden thriving this fall

To cut or not to cut? Here are the plants to trim in the fall

Pruning jasmine plant
CHIEW / Shutterstock

Fresh spring growth is a welcome sight in any garden, and it all starts with getting ready at the end of fall and the start of winter. Cutting back plants is one way to prepare your plants for new spring growth, and many plants can benefit from this severe pruning. This form of pruning might sound intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re wondering how to cut back fall plants, which plants to cut, and why cutting your plants back is effective, then this is the guide for you! We’ll answer all your questions, so you can feel confident as you cut back fall plants.

Gardener using pruning shears to cut back a hydrangea
M.Baturitskii / Shutterstock

What is cutting back and why do it?

Cutting back is a type of pruning. Typical pruning involves removing specific branches that are diseased, damaged, or growing too closely to another branch. Cutting back, on the other hand, means pruning away all or most of a plant. This provides a few key benefits for your plants and your garden as a whole.

Cutting your plants back after they’ve gone dormant (which typically happens in late fall to early winter, after the temperature has dropped significantly) encourages them to put out new growth in the spring. For some plants, cutting back is a good way to control their size and keep them from growing too tall or too wide. Cutting back also removes shelter and food for insects, though it doesn’t discriminate between pests and beneficial bugs.

Just like with pruning, always use a sharp, clean utensil (like pruning shears, knives, and scissors) to make your cuts. Cut your plant down until it’s two or three inches above the ground. This way, you’ll have a marker for the plant’s location, and your plant doesn’t have to start from scratch in the spring. If your plant is thicker, you may need to leave more than three inches.

Orange and red blanket flowers
GoranH / Pixabay

What plants should you cut back?

In general, you want to cut back perennials and not annuals. In particular, focus on plants that are diseased, infected, or infested, as cutting back can potentially keep these problems from coming back next year.

Plants with tall, thin flower stalks can benefit from cutting back, as frost makes the stalks fold over. This is aesthetically displeasing and potentially damaging for the plant. Plants with these flower stalks include irises and lilies.

Some flowers bloom with renewed vigor in the spring after being cut back in the fall. Catmint and blanket flowers both fall into this category. Additionally, some plants will grow new leaves at the base of the stem after being cut back, such as salvia and yellow chamomile; these leaves help shelter the plant from the cold.

At a glance, six plants you should cut back are:

  • Irises
  • Lilies
  • Catmint
  • Blanket flowers
  • Salvia
  • Yellow chamomile
White and purple irises
Krzysztof Bubel / Shutterstock

What plants should you avoid cutting back?

Not all plants benefit from being cut back, and some plants are even beneficial to your garden if you leave them standing over winter. Any plant that self-seeds (and that you want to self-seed) should be left standing at least until they drop their seeds. You should also leave plants that produce colorful or interesting seed pods, as these can keep your winter garden from becoming drab.

If you’re an environmentally conscious gardener, leave plants that are common winter food sources for birds, like coneflowers. Evergreen plants, especially low-lying ones, don’t typically benefit from being cut back unless they’re diseased. Moss phlox, for example, is an evergreen plant that stays close to the ground, but powdery mildew can be a problem for them. A healthy moss phlox can be left alone, but an infected one should be cut back.

Short, leafy plants typically need all their leaves to survive the cold, so cutting them back can result in the death of the plant. Hostas and heuchera are two prime examples of this. However, hosta leaves are often targeted by slugs, and dead hosta leaves can play host for slug eggs. If your garden has a serious slug problem, then you may need to cut your hosta back.

A close up of a pair of garden shears gently clipping a stem of fuchsia
Stanislav71 / Shutterstock

Do you need to cut back indoor plants?

Most houseplants don’t need to be cut back as severely as outdoor plants, but they can still benefit from pruning and deadheading. Deadheading is the process of removing withered or dead flowers from the plant. Some plants will drop these flowers on their own, but clipping them saves your plant time and energy. Light pruning can be done at any time of the year, and should focus on removing diseased or damaged branches as well as controlling your plant’s size and shape. Heavier pruning is best left to late winter. This reduces the amount of stress your plant undergoes, while ensuring that it doesn’t have long to wait until the warm weather and increased sunlight of spring that will help it begin to grow again.

Cutting plants back can be a helpful and necessary gardening technique. If you’ve never done it before, then it may take some getting used to. It can be intimidating to cut so much off of your plant, but it’s worth it for the healthy new growth you’ll see in spring.

Editors' Recommendations

Cayla Leonard
Cayla Leonard is a writer from North Carolina who is passionate about plants.  She enjoys reading and writing fiction and…
Can you grow a bird of paradise from a cutting? Here’s what you need to know to grow your dream plant
Tips and tricks for successfully propagating a bird of paradise plant
Bird of paradise plant

Whether they're found in their natural habitats in the wild or as the centerpiece in an indoor garden, bird of paradise plants are eye-catching and perfect for adding some color and tropical flair to your home. This plant is native to South Africa and is well-known for its lush foliage and attractive tropical blooms with vividly colored flowers. The plant gets its name from the stunning flower's resemblance to a colorful bird in flight.

With how stunning this plant is, it's no wonder that so many gardeners want to grow their own. However, growing one from seed can take a long time, and mature plants can be expensive if you want more than one. For most plants like this, propagation is the fastest and most cost effective way of adding them to your garden. So can you grow a bird of paradise from a cutting? Yes, and this guide will tell you how!

Read more
5 November garden plants you should consider growing
Here are the best plants to get started for late fall
Close-up of daffodils in sunlight

November is the end of autumn and the beginning of winter, so it isn’t typically a time when people think about working in their gardens. However, November can still be a productive gardening month! We’ve prepared a list of five plants that you can grow in your garden this November — we’ll even give you tips and tricks for growing them, what climates they grow best in, and when you can expect to see results. If you aren’t planning on planting a cover crop this winter, try out one of these November garden plants.

Daffodils
Daffodils are spring-blooming flowers, but they’re often planted in the fall. Daffodil bulbs should be planted two or three weeks before the ground freezes, so keep an eye on your local weather for the best results. In mild climates, daffodils can be planted as late as the end of November, while those in cooler climates may need to plant them in September or October.

Read more
5 outdoor gardening projects to focus on this November
Things you can do to improve your garden this November
Stone house with yard full of golden leaves

November is the last month of fall, when many plants have already put out their final harvest and others are going dormant for winter. Your garden is slowing down, and there are fewer things to do outdoors. If you're the type of person who loves being active and productive, or if you have kids that need to be kept busy, then this might be a frustrating time for you. Don't worry, though. There are still a few things that you can and should do outdoors in November to improve your garden. Add these five November gardening tasks to your checklist to help your garden thrive through winter.

Harvest the last of your fall garden
If you had a fall vegetable garden, be sure to bring in the last of the harvest. You may have already completed this step if you live in a cooler region, but, for those further south, this is the perfect time to wrap up your harvests. Be sure to store them somewhere dark and cool, like the fridge or a cellar (depending on what you were growing), or can them so they last longer. Any produce that’s left on the vine for too much longer will begin to rot or suffer frost damage.

Read more