garden tip: first, make things worse

cutback-geraniumI‘M BUSY MAKING BAD SITUATIONS WORSE THESE DAYS, which is exactly what has to be done to bring any garden from now to a visually pleasing high summer and fall. It’s not unlike cleaning your closet: Things have to get pulled apart and look a lot messier before they get better. Really. The butchery around here extends beyond the huge swaths of beheaded bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum), above. Want the hit list? Feeling brave?

Some euphorbias, particularly the basic early spring yellow species called polychroma, will start to flop open and get mildewy here if they don’t get a brutal cutback, so you can see (left) what I’ve done to them (same thing I do again in earliest spring before new growth begins).

The new red-foliage polychroma cultivar, ‘Bonfire,’ seems to stand up better to summer, so I’m not chopping it down. Will I regret it? Don’t know…only my second year with the plant, so it’s all an experiment.

Which is what cutbacks are: You observe what is going on, and if it’s not looking good, you consider administering a haircut.

The pulmonarias were shorn to the ground after flowering last month, and already have a new set of showy leaves (instead of tattered, about-to-mildew old ones). They would have grown a new set right up and over the old, but I prefer to just shear them, rather than fussily deadheading each flower stem.

Perennial salvias, like the popular ‘May Night’ and the nemorosa varieties ‘Snow Hill’ and ‘Caradonna,’ can do with a good, hard cutback when they’re done blooming. A new rosettes of foliage will be emerging down below, and a lower-impact second flush of bloom will eventually be mustered.

Catmints (Nepeta) look a mess when they pass their first major bloom, so hack them back I do (again, same treatment as in earliest spring), forcing another flush of foliage and perhaps more flowers. Again, most of all what I am seeking to do is avoid having to stare at big, ugly, floppy plants long past their prime. I’d rather have a tidy, smaller mound of fresh green and a bit of a hole than a gone-by mess.

Apparently some visitors here agree, including two from mores southerly zones (John and Writermom, see their comments), who confessed to cutting down their spring-flowering Clematis recently after intense heat had fried them. Again, experiments. One, so far, reported success, even though the books won’t tell you summer Clematis butchery is on the recommended list.

With anything you are this harsh on, be sure to keep an eye on watering while it rejuvenates. And don’t panic, or at least not right away. Some plants (like my euphorbias) will sit there looking like you killed them for a week (or two or three). And then, most times, they’ll get up and growing all over again.

Given any good haircuts lately? Perhaps that stringy hanging basket of petunias?

  1. Terry Haugen says:

    Hi I just found your site and loved the photos. Did you ever try growing the ” Happy Thoughts” Pelargonium? Not only does it have flourescent orange-red flowers but fancy green leaves with a cream center. Very stunning!

  2. margaret says:

    Welcome, Terry. Haven’t grown that one, but now that you’ve told me I will have to go find it. Hope to see you again soon.

  3. M.E. says:

    Hi Margaret,
    We’re having a terrible time with 2 ground hogs.
    They’ve mown down my flox, perennial sunflowers, sage,etc. If I cut back the damaged stems is there a chance that they might still bloom this season? I think the ground hogs have moved on to greener pastures. Do you have any suggestions about keeping them away?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, M.E. Here in farming country any number of neighbors is happy to get rid of them for me, as they are highly unwelcome. I have used every method…a large Havahart trap; sulphur/smoke bombs in their burrows, and the services as I say of local hunters/trappers when I cannot get the guys myself. You can read about my first woodchuck experience in this essay. Since they can dig so adeptly and climb and go just about anywhere they wish, these are the hardest pests to get rid of, but do so ASAP; do not let them get established.

      As for your eaten crops, some things will send up another shoot and some will not, and most will be delayed or prevented from blooming this year, as you suspect. So sorry.

  4. Cynthia says:

    Hi Margaret,
    Quick question – should Echinacea and Shasta Daisy also be cut back by half? What if they already have buds?

    1. Margaret says:

      @Cynthia: No, I would not cut those back now. I suspect you could have early on with the Shasta to make it flower later/smaller, but I have never tried.

  5. Cynthia says:

    Thanks Margaret,
    I may try it another year when I feel more adventurous and will keep you posted.
    For this year, I will leave as is – they may be all I have in bloom come late summer, given the year we’ve had so far!

  6. Linda says:

    I’m so glad I found you. I went to your lecture in Bedford and you became an inspiration for me.
    Is lettuce a good candidate for containers and is it too late to plant them? I just started a vegetable garden.

    1. Margaret says:

      @Linda: If you can give them some shade (half a day or so, especially protection from midday sun) they will be fine in containers or the ground in summer, particularly varieties rated for summer production (heat-resistant kinds). Big pots, though — not small ones where their roots will cook and cause the plants to heat up and bolt!

  7. Linda Vater says:


    I am a HUGE fan of whacking back (I think that is a technical horticultural term)
    tired, leggy, or weather damaged annuals and perennials, even some shrubs
    around here. Long growing seasons in this southern state demand it. And
    when the 100 degree temps set in, and all looks brown and worn out, good grooming is all you have! That and good design…………..good, strong bones to your landscape is never more important than in an August in OK! Thanks for this wonderful reminder.

  8. Cheryl Maze says:

    I’ve been gardening in the Willamette valley in Oregon for a long time, and have learned to be a “whacker” too. Even though we have had a very rainy spring with cool weather, my fall blooming sedums set buds early. I cut them back each May or June by 2/3rds to prolong the flowering and keep them from flopping. Right now they look sad, but they will be beautiful in September!

    Great website!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Cheryl. I wish I had cut back more things already…we had a very early/fast spring and many things are too far advanced for my liking. Lots of work to do! Thanks for your kind words, and see you soon again.

  9. arlene shechet says:

    my coppertina have some terrible patches of dense powdery mildew but other
    parts of the bushes (i have 4) are just fine. should i cut them back? will that help?
    These bushes seem very prone to this problem. What are your recommendations?

  10. Deborah says:

    Arlene, I had the same problem with my coppertina. Last year it had powdery mildew pretty bad, and I cut out all of it and thinned the shrub drastically, as well as thinning all the perennials around it. The mildew came back twice. This spring it showed up again. I have several other ninebarks and only the coppertina has done this. It also seems the most prone to seeding all over the place. I chopped it to the ground this time. You might have more patience than me, and try spraying it with milk or baking soda or whatever recipe you have. But do get Diablo if you don’t have it. I have 4 of them and they never have mildew.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Deborah, and thank you for adding to the conversation. I have never had mildew here in the Hudson Valley of NY State on several old Diablo, several Dart’s Gold, or one Coppertina. Apparently I got lucky! See you soon again, I hope.

  11. Kate's mom says:

    Hello from (at the moment cold!) northern PA. Question: my smoke bush has lots of flowers but it won’t “smoke” Any idea why not?

    Also, for amateurs like me, would you be able to list common names of flowers sometimes so I know whether or not I have them? :^)


    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Kate’s Mom. Not sure if I understand — it flowers but they flowers don’t develop? Or is it perhaps the dark-leaved variety ‘Royal Purple,’ whose “smoke” is not light colored like most of the others, but purple like the rest of the plant (hence lesser contrast/sense of “smoke” — though it is very beautiful)? Do you know which one you have? I;d have guessed you were pruning too hard and preventing flowering…more on that here…but you say it is flowering.

      As for common names, sometimes I don’t even know them truth be told (or they don’t have a truly common one). But yes, I hear you.

  12. We have a bed of the much maligned English Ivy under one of our maple trees. Though it has a reptation for being very invasive, ours has minded it’s own business and stays put. However, the maple trees have a habit of dropping their seeds and find the ivy patch a perfect nursery for youngsters to grow in. I comtemplated taking pliers to them but figured that would take forever. While mowing the surrounding lawn I suddenly found myself raising the blade as high as it would go (3.5 inches) and I mowed everything down, ivy, seedlings and all. There are actually a lot of ivy leaves left and I hope that the haircut will rejuvenate the patch. Time will tell. At least it looks neater.

  13. Dominique says:

    DO you have any advice for Centaureas? These bachelor buttons look great for about 3 days in late spring and then look aawful the rest of the summer. Could they do with a real haircut right about now?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Dominique. I think with Centaurea, which I stopped growing years ago so it has been awhile, deadheading is more the thing that shearing. Removing spent flowers so they don’t go to seed and so that more develop, I mean. I don’t know which one you have (genus, species, variety) so it’s hard to be specific.

  14. Sue says:

    Hi Margaret-I so look forward to your blog. I wrote several months ago regarding deer/deer fencing. (I live in southern Maryland-zone 7a) I also read the book you recommended-Deer Resistant Landscaping by Neil Soderstrom. So far so good with the fence although we have a doe lurking. She wags her tail end when she sees us and shyly goes on. I’m hoping my garden is deer resistant because I tryed edamame for the first time ever. Last week while back at our house in the beautiful Flint Hills of Kansas, I did a lot of yard transforming-pruning the nasty barberry, removing the spiderwort, and pulling up the varigated vinca which was strangling everything else. It felt good to have the spring cleaning done! Thanks for all the info you share!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Sue. TELL HER MARGARET SAID GET LOST. :) So glad to see you here, and glad to help anytime. Having nice readers helps me keep going, truth be told.

  15. Evi says:

    Hi Margaret,thanks a lot for your wonderful blog and your book. It was a pleasure to read. My garden is in the south of Germany near the Alps , a windy site with a not too long growing season. Concerning cutting back nepetea varieties, I`d like to comment that I was very successful with my nepeta fassenii varieties but not so with nepeta sibirica or nepeta nervosa ( nomen est omen??) . They did not die but did not respond nicely. By the way – please continue to youse the latin names the are the same all over the world.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Evi, from so far away. Good point. I have had the same experience with some euphorbias — some (like the polychroma types) respond well, but not all. Yes, the Latin names are best — and often I don’t even know a common name (like I know that euphorbias are “spurges” but I never hear anyone talk about them as such!). See you soon.

  16. Kathy M says:

    Thanks for the reminder about deadheading. Sometimes it is a hard thing to do when the plants still look kinda good, but I have found if I keep after my Nepeta , Balloon flowers and Scabiosa, I can have flushes of rebloom up till October some years. One of my favorite activities is going out early on a summer morning before the heat and humidity set in and with clippers in hand snipping things back in my perennial border. Unfortunately this year Bambi and friends have been trying to help me. They don’t seem to realize that there is no rebloom for daylilies or asiatic lilies. if they touch my Zinnias i will take up hunting!
    Thanks Margaret for all your great advice. Enjoyed the visit on the Martha Stewart Show so much I watched it twice! You really do look much more relaxed and at peace. I think even Martha was a bit envious.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Michelle. I do if the foliage starts to yellow — depends on sun/shade and soil moisture and so on, so some I cut back (or pull where there are too many)and some seem to hold up.

  17. Dahlink says:

    My favorite candidate for a whack job this time of year is Tradescantia (“spiderwort” when it’s at home). When it gets hot, the plant gets floppy. I cut them back by half, and pretty soon I have another round of bloom. I’ve already started this year’s cutting back–if I do it in phases I always have some in bloom.

    As for common names vs. Latin nomenclature, my m-in-law always referred to hostas as “Funkia” (which meant suppressing a giggle).

  18. Jane in CT says:

    I love my varieties of spiderworts, from deep purples to dainty blushing whites. I’m thrilled Dahlink turned me on to cutting them back after they bloom [never thunk it for them]–can’t wait for more flowers from them, and my little flash-in-the-pan dwarf. Thanks!

  19. Matt says:

    Hello Margaret,

    I love your site – thank you for posting all the wonderful pictures and information! As I was re-reading this post, I have a question for you: I have a bunch of Geranium macrorrhizum growing in several street tree beds on my block on NYC’s Lower East Side. They were planted last year (2015) and came back beautifully in the spring. Now, after several weeks of hot and dry, on top of putting up with the general grit of NYC’s streets, they are looking shabby and brown around the edges. Is it too late to cut them back in late August? Or would this help them get through the fall? Last year, we had foliage and even some blossoms into December. Many thanks, Matt

    1. margaret says:

      I’d cut it back halfway (try to leave the small leaves that are probably emerging anyhow beneath the old) and water well for awhile. I have to say I can’t look at toasted plants and am pretty harsh with them…I think of it as getting a headstart on fall cleanup, removing ratty stuff now.

      1. Matt says:

        Many thanks for the response! I was secretly hoping you’d say that because I am tired of looking at the shriveled leaves! Just gave them a nice haircut. Thanks again.

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