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October 19, 2011

Prune your perennial flower garden

- by Debra Anchors

As we add new plants to our gardens each season, it's sometimes difficult to remember how to care for each of them. Then, what to do when fall arrives?  Below are suggestions for preparing your perennial flower gardens for a snowy winter. Cutting back and removing debris from around the base of your plants will not only help prevent disease, it will also keep garden bugs from nesting in your plants during the deep freeze. 

Look for your favorite flowering plant in the list below to discover how to care for it during the growing season and also to give your blooms a jump on next spring. The photographs are meant to assist you with plant identification, but perhaps you will see a few plants here to try in your garden next season. Planning next year's flower beds is one of my favorite ways to spend time during the winter months here in the Midwest.

(Agastache spp.)

Remove individual spent spikes to keep the flowers coming. Cut the entire stem of to the ground when finished to promote a late bloom. This plant is also known as Hyssop or Hummingbird Mint.

Aster, Stokes 
(Stokesia laevis)

Dead-head spent flowers to a side bud to prolong flowering. When flowers finish, remove stems to the ground. Stokes Aster may re-bloom - look carefully - buds and seed heads look similar. Available also in yellow.

(Astilbe spp.)

Dead-heading won't stimulate more flowers, so leave seed heads standing for late-season interest. When they look ratty, cut them to the ground. Astilbe is sometimes known as False Spirea.

Baby's Breath 
(Gypsophila paniculata)

Cut panicles of spent flowers to side shoots to keep this perennial flowering longer. Shear stems to the ground after they finish to promote a second, smaller flush of fall flowers. Baby's Breath is gorgeous when dried and lends itself well to dried flower arrangements or as nosegays for your Christmas tree. This plant is also sometimes referred to as Gyp.

Balloon Flower 
(Platycodon grandiflorus)

Prolong bloom and keep plants fresh by removing individual spent flowers. Stems are tough - use small pruners and dip them in alcohol to clean them of the sticky sap. Balloon Flower reseeds year-to-year and is also sometimes known as Chinese Bell Flower or Japanese Bell Flower.

Beardtongue, yellow 
(Penstemon digitalis)

Remove the flowering stems to the low mound of leaves as the flowers fade. There will be a small amount of late-season re-bloom if you dead-head this plant; you'll also get a much better looking mound of new foliage. Sometimes Beard Tongue, this plant is also available in pink and sold as Tracy's Beardtongue.

Bee Balm 
(Monarda didyma)

Cut spent blooms back to side buds to prolong blooming. After it's finished flowering and entertaining the hummingbirds, cut stems down to 4 or 5 inches to promote mounds of clean, healthy foliage. Bee Balm rarely re-blooms. Look for this plant (actually an herb) in the color purple, as well. Other names are Bergamot, Wild Oswego Tea and Horsemint.

Bell Flower 

Pinch off individual flowers as they fade. Cut the entire stalk back to within 6 inches of the ground when it's finished to encourage re-bloom.  Bell flower releases a sticky sap as you prune. Sometimes spelled as Bellflower, another common name for this beauty is Canterbury Bells.

(Bergenia cordifolia)

Cut flower stems off at the ground after flowering to keep the plant looking tidy - Bergenia will not re-flower during the season and rarely reseeds. Other names for this plant are Baby Doll or Pigsqueak (Pig Squeak).

Blanket Flower 
(Gaillardia grandiflora)

Snip off individual flowers a few inches below the seed head to prolong bloom. Later, cut stems to within 6 inches of the ground; stop dead-heading in Blanket Flower August. This plant is sometimes spelled Blanketflower and is also known as Indian Blanket, Sundance Flower or Firewheel.

Blazing Star 
(Liatris spicata)

Cut stems back to the top of the foliage after the flowers fade. Smaller, second flowers, may sprout from the stem or near the ground. If not dead-headed, birds will feast on the seeds of Blazing Star. Other popular names for this plant are Gayfeather, Button Snakeroot and Rattlesnake Master.

Bleeding Heart 
(Dicentra spp.)

Cut flower stems down to the basal mound of foliage after they're finished to keep this perennial flowering well into autumn. Bleeding Heart can reseed. There is now a fern leaf variety of bleeding heart available which blooms during the summer. Bleeding Heart is also available in white.

(Brunnera macrophylla)

Cut flowering stems with small leaves down to 2 to 3 inches after they flower to prevent reseeding. Leave basal foliage developing in the center of the clump. Brunnera will not re-bloom. A star performer in the shade, this plant is sometimes referred to as Siberian Bugloss or Jack Frost Plant.

(Actaea racemosa)

Leave seedpods on this plant to add winter interest, or cut them off to uppermost set of leaves, leaving as much foliage as possible to feed the plant.  Bugbane will not re-bloom during the season. An herb, this plant is also named Black Cohosh, Baneberry, Snakeroot or Doll's Eyes.

Cardinal Flower 
(Lobelia cardinalis)

Cutting down spent spikes, 2 to 3 inches from the ground, will sometimes promote a small re-bloom.  Cardinal Flower is short-lived, so allow a few seeds to ripen or cut to ground layer a stem or two. You will also find this plant named Scarlet Lobelia.

(Nepeta spp.)

Also known as Catnip or Cats Wort. Cut stems down to 2 or 3 inches after flowering to keep Catmint looking neat. It may or may not re-flower after dead-heading.  Dead-heading will prevent reseeding.

(Aquilegia spp.)

Available in a wide variety of colors, Columbine is very easy to grow and easy to take care of in your garden. Snip off spent flowers to side stems to keep columbines blooming; cut the entire stem to the ground when it's finished.  Allow some seed heads to ripen to ensure replacement plants next spring.

Coneflower, purple
(Echinacea purpurea)

Coneflower re-blooms just fine, even without dead-heading. Cutting off early blooms to a side shoot keeps later flowers larger. Leave a few seed heads for the birds unless reseeding is a problem. An herb, this plant is also called Echinacea, Scurvy Root, and Comb Flower.

Coral Bells 
(Heuchera hybrids)

Cut flowering stems below the low mound of foliage as coral bells finish blooming. Dead-heading will extend the flowering and will sometimes promote a smaller, second flowering.

Coreopsis, Threadleaf
(Coreopsis verticillata)

Use pruners or hedge clippers to shear plants to the ground in August to stimulate September and October re-bloom.  Dead-heading also helps prevent reseeding. This plant is also commonly called Whorled Coreopsis.

(Corydalis spp.)

There is no real need to dead-head Corydalis for re-bloom. You can shear the plant back after the heat of the summer if it looks ratty and it will quickly fill in and start blooming again. A member of the poppy family, this plant is also sometimes referred to as Harlequin Flower.

(Hemerocallis hybrids)

Snap off spent flowers on your Daylily as they wilt to keep later flowers as large as possible. Once the stem is finished, cut it to the ground. Some cultivars re-bloom, others do not. 

(Delphinium elatum)

Pinch off spent flowers of Delphinium along the stems; cut the finished spikes to a leaf bud to encourage smaller side shoots. Cut back to basal foliage when all flowers are done. Available in a wide variety of colors, Delphinium often re-blooms and is also known as Larkspur. 

(Dianthus gratianopolitanus)

Some cultivars of dianthus (carnations) reseed, so deadhead as soon as the flowers fade. Remove spent stems but leave the clump of foliage. Because the edges of the petals are often notched, these plants are commonly called Pinks.

(Delphinium elatum)

Some varieties of Foamflower will re-bloom after dead-heading. Cut or pinch off the entire stem down into the low mound of foliage to improve appearance. This plant is also often referred to as False Miterwort.

(Digitalis spp.)

As flowers fade, pinch them off along the stem. Remove stems to the basal rosette of leaves when most of the flowers are finished. Foxglove may re-bloom later with smaller flowers. Some varieties of this beauty will reseed. There are perennial and biennial cultivars of Foxglove.

Gas Plant
(Dictamnus albus)

Cut seed heads down to foliage after flowering or leave the star-shaped seed pods for late season interest. Gas plant will not re-flower with dead-heading but can reseed. This plant is also referred to as Burning Bush (because it emits a vapor capable of being ignited).

(Gaura lindheimeri)

Gaura flowers much of the summer, without dead-heading, on stems that just keep branching. Cut out stems that have bloomed to reduce reseeding.  Cutting back encourages more branching during the growing season. Appleblossom Grass is another common name for this Austin wildflower.

(Geum hybrids)

Geum will flower much longer with attention to dead-heading during the growing season. Cut spent flowers back to budded side branches. Later, remove the entire stem to the low mound of foliage. Avens Herb is another name for this perennial.

Globe Thistle
(Echinops ritro)

Cut spent flowers to a side branch to keep the plant flowering as long as possible and you will be rewarded with a late re-bloom with smaller flowers. Cut the entire stem to basal foliage when Globe Thistle is through for the season. 

(Solidago spp.) 

An herb, Goldenrod is a generous re-seeder in your garden and provides for many species of beneficial insects. Deadhead the first and largest flowers back to the healthy foliage to promote a smaller, second burst of flowers from side buds. Cut all seed heads to prevent reseeding.

Hardy Geranium
(Geranium spp.)

It is very difficult to dead-head individual flowers, so cut tall cultivars to 2 or 3 inches after most of the flowers have finished blooming. Cut low spreaders back to 4 to 6 inches. Some hardy geranium species re-bloom. This plant is also commonly known as Cranesbill and is available in pink, blue, purple or white.

Hardy Hibiscus
(Hibiscus moscheutos)

Pluck off spent flowers daily to keep this plant looking tidy and it will continue to flower for you (this will also prevent reseeding). Cut dead stems down to the ground or leave the seed pods for birds to enjoy. These beautiful plants are descended from the species commonly called Rose Mallow.

(Heliopsis helianthoides) 

Don't cut off all of the spent flowers - goldfinches are fond of the seeds. Heliopsis reseeds, so you may want to remove some of the seed heads; will not re-bloom after dead-heading. This plant is also known as False Sunflower and Ox Eye (Oxeye).

(Helleborus spp.)

Pinch off spent flowers with your fingers or small pruners to prevent reseeding. Hellebore does not produce flowers more than once each season. This plant is also very well known as a Lenten Rose or Christmas Rose.
(Alcea rosea)

Pinch off flowers along the stems as they wilt and Hollyhock may re-bloom for you on shorter stems. Leave a few flowers to reseed and then cut the stems to basal foliage once flowering has finished.

(Iris sibirica)

As blooms wither, pinch or cut them from the stems to keep the plant looking good and to prevent seed formation. Remove the entire stem down into the foliage when all flowers are finished.

Jacob's Ladder
(Polemonium caeruleum)

To keep Jacob's Ladder looking fresh and encourage new growth, cut the entire plant back to 2 or 3 inches. Let a few pods ripen to replace the short-lived parent plant. This one often re-blooms with dead-heading.

Jupiter's Beard
(Centranthus rubber)

This one is a prolific seeder if not dead-headed. As the flowers fade, cut back to side shoots. Juniper's Beard often re-blooms if the spent stems are cut down to 3 or 4 inches after the first flower. This plant is also called Valerian.

(Lavender spp.)

Harvest the flowers of Lavender with stems. Cut the entire plant back to healthy foliage to promote a second flowering. The re-bloom is shorter than the first. Harvest the late flowers, leaving the foliage. Consider drying lavender and adding it to nosegays for your Christmas tree.

(Lilium hybrid)

Pinch or cut individual flowers as they fade. Leave the foliage until it yellows to supply food for the bulb; always try to leave as many leaves as possible. Lily does not re-bloom.

(Pulmonaria spp.)

Cut away flowering stems to tidy-up the plant after they fall to the side, exposing the new mound of foliage in the center. An herb, Lungwort will not re-bloom but can reseed. Wear gloves when working with this one due to it's prickly stems. This plant is also referred to as Jerusalem Cowslip or Lung Moss.

(Lupinus hybrids)

After spring flowering, cut the stems just above the small emerging buds along the stems to promote a second flowering. Lupine reseeds, but seedlings will vary in color. Cutting these back to the ground will control aphids.

Mountain Bluet
(Centaurea montana)

Also known as Perennial Cornflower or Perennial Bachelor's Buttons, take care as this beauty can easily get away from you.  Cut spent flowers back to side shoots and trim stems down to 2 to 3 inches after they're finished flowering. Mountain Bluet often re-blooms and can reseed rampantly.

(Verbascum bombyciferum)

An herb with woolly stems and leaves, prune Mullein's main spike to it's side branches. After bloom, cut the entire plant to the ground to stimulate late flowering. Dead-heading helps this biennial behave more like a perennial. This plant is also called Adam's Flannel or Beggar's Blanket.

Painted Daisy
(Tanacetum coccineum)

Snip the individual flowers of this plant off to a main stem as they fade. When the stem is finished, cut it to the basal foliage to keep the plant looking fresh. Any re-bloom will be small and sporadic. Painted Daisy is also known as Pyrethum Daisy.

(Penstemon barbatus)

Also called Beardtongues, Penstemon can be dead-headed to side buds or branches to prolong flowering. Cut the stems down to the ground when finished blooming; there is usually no re-bloom during the season.

(Paeonia spp.)

The fragrance of a Peony is intoxicating. Snip wilted flowers back to the first leaf to keep the plant looking tidy. Leave as much foliage as possible to feed the plant all summer. Cut the Peony back to the ground in fall.

Phlox, Tall Garden
(Phlox paniculata)

Prune the spent flower clusters so that the flowering side branches can develop. Dead-head the Phlox to the ground when it is finished blooming. Discard all plant material after pruning to resist mildew on next year's foliage. Tall Garden Phlox is also commonly referred to as Summer Phlox and Perennial Phlox.

Pincushion Flower
(Scabiosa columbaria)

Also known as Sweet Scabiosa and Mourning Bride, Pincushion Flower fits very well into cottage gardens. Pick off the spent flowers before seeds form. Cut entire stems to a basal rosette when they are finished blooming to prolong the blooming of the plant. Note differences between buds and seed heads - they look similar.


Many people are leery and avoid growing roses;  there really is no reason to be. Remove spent blossoms by dead-heading weekly, if not more often. The rule-of-thumb is to cut back the stem to just above an outward-facing bud just above a five or seven leaflet leaf, close to the end of the stem. Roses are worth an investment of your time - they will reward you with years of beauty in exchange for little effort.
(Salvia nemerosa)

A member of the mint family, Salvia is also known as Ornamental Sage. Dead-heading promotes a long bloom period. Snip off spikes to side branches and follow that by cut the spent stems back to the base of the foliage to encourage a late summer re-bloom.

Sedum, Tall
(Sedum spectabile)

There is no need to dead-head Tall Sedum. Leave the seed heads standing for winter interest and wildlife - they hold up to snow very well. Or, harvest the Sedum stalks for dried arrangements. Cut the plant down to the ground in the spring as new growth starts.

Shasta Daisy
(Leucanthemum xsuperbum)

Named for Mount Shasta in CA, Shasta Daisy is also known as the English Daisy. Dead-head spent blooms to side shoots to keep this perennial blooming almost all summer. Cut the spent stems down to 2 or 3 inches for a smaller re-bloom.

(Veronica spicata)

To prolong the bloom of Speedwell, cut the spent flower spike back to it's side branches. Once finished, cut the entire stem down to the gound. Speedwell may produce a small re-bloom later in the season if diligently dead-headed.

(Andersoniana Group)

Also called Bluejacket or Widowstears (or Widows Tears), cut the stems of Spiderwort back to a side shoot or leaf axis for more flowers after all of the buds in a cluster have finished. If the plant looks ratty, cut it back by half to encourage re-bloom.

(Coreopsis grandiflora)

Frequent  dead-heading will keep Tickseed blooming almost all summer. Cut the flower stems back to the side branches. Eventually remove all spent stems to the ground. This plant is also referred to as Plains Coreopsis or Golden Tickseed Coreopsis.

(Chelone lyonii)

A favorite of butterflies, there is no need to dead-head this plant due to it's seed pods that add winter interest. If seed heads look objectionable, cut them back to the healthy foliage. The many other names for this plant include Balmony, Bitter Herb, Codhead, Fish Mouth, Shellflower, Snakehead, Snake Mouth and Turtle Bloom.

(Achillea spp.)

Dead-head spent flower stems down to the ground. You can pick off only the spent flower heads, but you will get a much better late flowering if you remove the entire stem. There is a very long history of Yarrow growing on the North American continent; Staunchweed, Military Herb, Carpenters Weed, Old Mans Pepper and Soldier's Woundwort are among the other names attributed to this plant.

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  1. What a great sight! I am fairly new at growing perennials and not always sure when or if I should cut back plants after the flowers have died. I was looking for white plains penstemon but didn't find it so I
    will take a chance and cut it way down and see what happens.

    1. Hello there! Thank you for visiting.

      In regard to your White Plains Penstemon, you may wish to wait until the seed heads dry (so you can collect the seeds), but after that you can cut it down to ground level. Your Penstemon will return next year.

  2. Just happened upon your site - great info. I have a question about Stoke's Aster - as you say, it is difficult for me to tell the difference between a new bud and seed head (esp. if I don't deadhead right after the flower has bloomed when some of the petals are remaining). Any tips? Thank you!

  3. I love your pruning/deadheading advice! BUT, I am VERY disappointed not seeing photos of each of the flowers. Is that coming soon??? (I hope!)

    1. Hi there! Thank you for letting me know that the picture links weren't working. I have repaired the links and hope you will enjoy the article.

  4. Love that you explain how to care for the flowers during and after blooming. Great information. I think Foam Flower is actually 'Tiarella' though not 'Delphinium Alatum'. I have common foam flower and a patented variety of Iron Butterfly. Love both.

  5. Really enjoyed all of this but aware that our Maryland situation might effect somethings differently. Zone 7


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