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. margaret says:

    Welcome, Marian. And yes, thinking of it as a haircut makes it all the more agreeable I think! Who doesn’t enjoy the fresh feeling of a nice haircut?

    @Bart: I do nothing but deadhead with my lilacs…until they turn the corner to leggy or overgrown, and then I take out a fraction of the stems at ground level each year. But like anything with the part-art, part-science world of gardening, you have to use common sense and eyeball it, not just do what “experts” say. The “experts” (books, garden writer like me) aren’t there in the yard looking at the plant like you are, and can’t really make a judgment call for you, just offer guidelines. If the shrub was really overgrown, it probably can’t get worse from the chop job, and you can always watch how it breaks (or doesn’t) and take out some stems at the base to encourage vigorous new ones to fill in. I say “you have to grow it to know it,” and this is a lesson in the making–your experiment. Great.

  2. Bart Z. says:

    Jim and I whacked back a big lilac last weekend. (I know–a few days past the July 4 cutoff date.) It looks pretty sad but what can you do? It needed at least three feet taken off the top–it was out of control. I realize we may be punished with fewer blossoms next spring…
    Do you trim the tops of yours every year, or follow that rule about taking out one-third of the stems to the ground annually?

  3. Heidi says:

    I have to second everyone else, you are really psychic. I have a post for my blog already to go about how awful my garden looks now. Maybe I will just be patient and after everything has a chance to recuperate after the haircuts I will re-examine my thoughts about chucking the whole thing.

    Also, I have been wondering about nepetas. I grow both “Six Hills Giant” and Walker’s Low.” Both are very nice and I have always been happy with their beautiful spring flush of blue. However, this June while vacationing on Nantucket, where I grew up and used to garden, I noticed that almost all the nepetas on the island are an electric blue. I have looked online and through lots of catalogs and can’t find anything that comes close to the brightness of the blue that I saw. Do you have any idea what nepeta it could be or is it just the way the beautiful island light makes everything more special?

  4. Marian Faux says:

    And I also seriously cut back those fall-blooming sedums on July 1, so they bloom, with less flop, in the fall.

    So happy to hear I can really chop off the dicentra. Don’t think of it as slaughtering your babies; it’s giving them a haircut.

  5. writermom says:

    Good topic. I’ve been dismayed with my garden the last few days — first it didn’t rain for more than two weeks of crispy hot weather, and now it’s rained off and on for five. The first few days of good rain were great, but now everything is looking a bit tattered, overgrown and exhausted.

    It occurred to me that some slash-and-burn gardening might be appropriate — I figure that at some point, it can’t look any worse. Rather than battle the powdery mildew on my bee balm, I’m going to whack away the infested parts.

    Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve sometimes used the weed eater to give plants, especially unruly, leggy mums, a hair cut. I just shave a few inches off the top; they really don’t seem to mind. I don’t recommend this method AT ALL, but I gave the salvia a little trim too, and it’s happily blooming. I just don’t have the patience for meticulous scissor trimming.

  6. margaret says:

    @Heidi: Really all that you could look at would be ‘Joanna Reed’ or ‘Souvenir d’Andre Chaudron,’ my friend Andrew at Loomis Creek tells me, since I’m not growing any “new” ones. Neither is any greatly divergent color; the latter is shorter than the others and some sources say has “showier” flowers, but we’re not talking startlingly so. I like your “beach light” theory…

  7. margaret says:

    Welcome, Tammy…here I am. Now as for my early retirement, turns out blogging takes time, and then there’s the issue of making a living. I am brewing some fun ideas of what’s next for me, but it’s cutting into the “retirement” aspect of things to be sure. Nice to “see” you again.

  8. Tammy says:


    I am so delighted to find your blog! I had wondered where you were. I have missed you on Homegrown. How wonderful for you to be able to retire early and spend time in your garden.
    Here in Texas, some days we are just putting out the fires. So, yes I have begun to whack away at some of my salvias and other spindly creatures.

  9. dennis r says:

    speaking of pruning..i planted a show off forsythia 5/26/08(i know you think they’re garden puke, margaret) & it’s grown 5 inches already.
    how do i know?…i tied a loose twisty under the top buds of 1 cane & measured up from there. my Q? is: should i prune it back now for more lateral growth to make it a fuller ‘puke’ shrub? lol.

    dennis r
    zone 5
    hudson valley, ny

  10. Dee/reddirtramblings says:

    I’m doing the same thing Margaret. I just wrote about deadheading and chopping back. Must be done to keep these going. Thanks for showing the decimation.~~Dee

  11. margaret says:

    @Dennis: To be specific, I called forsythia “vomit of spring,” naughty person that I am. I’d prune it right after flowering, not now that it’s done much of its growing for the season.

    @Dee: It was hard to show the decimation, as I said. Right now, I can barely look at many parts of the garden, let alone “show” it. And so now I’m heading over to Oklahoma (that would be YOU) to see how your haircut salon is going…

  12. margaret says:

    Thanks, Carolyn, and welcome to A Way to Garden. And you bring up another great point: All those Nicotiana self-sowns outside in a particular bed of mine are healthy and lush…but that doesn’t mean I should leave them all there. One more task for the to-do list.

  13. Carolyn says:

    Great post. My first gardening teachers were a wonderful family I used to babysit for. (Those babies are now in their late teens). They do this kind of serious hacking even with houseplants. They had a huge, old Dracena marginata with stalks that touched the ceiling. In spring they cut those long bare stalks to the base of the plant and rooted the tops for give-aways. Before long a plump new plant emerged from the base. The results taught me that it’s ok to be a little ruthless and that has been my mantra this year with cutting back as well as editing self-sowers.

  14. Lyn says:

    Read your post just after my Inspection Walk this morning…. yep, it is time for some “tuff love” in this zone 9 garden.

    Not much heat in the summer on the coast, I am STILL waiting for the first Hollyhock blossom to open! But everyone grows at a good steady pace from March until November… can’t ask for more than that, right?
    Wondering if I may ask for other posts to include their zone when commenting? As a newbie gardener it would be tres helpful.

  15. margaret says:

    Thanks, Joyce. I don’t grow daylilies (I know, what am I thinking?) but when I did years ago I only removed the messy leaves–ones that were yellowing or tattered. Removing all the leaves (cutting the whole plant back) won’t kill it, but I don’t think it will make it happy, either. Can you selectively groom out tattered stuff?
    As for your asters, yes! Good point. I usually did one cutback a season with them, forcing later but sturdier bloom.

  16. joyce says:

    I am starting to feel so much less alone…So much of my garden is about keeping it pruned back — especially the astors! I cut them back at least 3 times throughout the summer, and pull out tons of them all the time. Alma Potchka and Purple Dome have married and the children are very gratifying, but different every year. This summer I goofed by cutting back the baptisia that was flopping into everything, but it is growing back kind of low and bushy and looks good!

    What about daylily leaves? They get so ratty, but what a chore to keep them cleaned up! Do you cut them back when they have finished blooming?

    This blog is wonderful.


  17. genata says:

    Is anyone else as loathe as I am to cut back oakleaf hydrangeas? They look so gorgeous as they fade from cream to almost peach, I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m wondering if it’s too late to cut back other hydrangeas also- they are making new growth, and while we’re at it, nicotiana, beautiful tall, light green flowers, which I did shear, do you think they’ll flower again?

  18. Lisa in CA says:

    I whacked my columbine at the end of blooming a few weeks ago because it was looking real leggy and unkempt and now it is starting to fill out again. It was a nice surprise because I really thought I had done her in.

  19. margaret says:

    @Genata: Welcome. The Nicotianas can bounce back pretty amazingly, in my experience, and I often cut the flower stalks to the ground for a late flush of bloom. So good move.
    Big blue hydrangeas (if that’s what you’re talking about) bloom on one-year-old wood, meaning they aren’t going to set more buds now (unless it’s ‘Endless Summer’ that you have, which as its name implies can keep on making new flowers all summer). You can deadhead as blooms finish if you want.
    As for the oakleaf types, I either don’t deadhead at all or if they need pruning I do it right after bloom–not later. If they are overgrown, take out some of the oldest stems at the base. Ditto with the blue mopheads.

    @Lisa: It is amazing how long some plants you deadhead will test you, as if they’re playing “chicken,” or playing dead. Some of my euphorbias out front looked like goners for nearly four weeks,and now they’re growing again.

  20. margaret says:

    Welcome, Mariann. I like your trick for staging the destruction. Very smart. Thanks for visiting, and see you soon again, I hope.

  21. Mariann says:

    I do a couple of things to take the sting out of hacking back some of the plants that just do better later in the garden when they are cut back. For salvias, I force myself to cut some stems in the back of the plant, even if it blooming like crazy. Then when the front part of the plant is ready to be cut back, I take that away to reveal the lush, new growth created by the first cut. I do a similar thing with nepeta only I take cuts out of the center. The new growth fills in quickly and by the time I get around to cutting off the tired looking first blooms (this week finally, the center portion is already a green mound. And, yes, annuals are my friend for filling in holes.

  22. Suzanne says:

    My dear mother could never bring herself to cut back her perennials so whenever I visited her in California I would barely finishing hugging her before grabbing the pruning shears and going on a spree in her garden. The first time she was shocked but soon appreciated the effect. Still she was unable to get over her fear of doing harm to the plants.

    In the Northeast one shrub that I have found that loves multiple haircuts throughout the spring and summer are the bright leaved Spirea (Goldflame, Goldmound etc.) They can be trimmed a little or a lot, either way you get new colorful emerging foliage and a flush of repeat blooms. I am on my third Spirea haircut of the current spring and summer.

  23. Amy says:


    First I must thank you generally for your website. I generally don’t “do” blogs, because they seem to be mostly about people with like ideas passing them back and forth, or sharing the same rants, or telling each other how clever they are. But ‘A Way to Garden’ is so different. Informative, inspiring and beautiful! Very beautiful!

    Now thank you specifically for ‘First Make Things Worse.’ I was on vacation in June and worked too many hours in July, and everything is out of control. With your good advice and inspiration I’m ready to regain control of this mess.

    Pruners sharp — onward!!

  24. margaret says:

    Welcome, Amy, and many thanks for the kind words. Now as for “regain control”…well, I’m not promising anything will ever be truly in control, but it certainly will be better after your planned assault. Keep us posted (and take no prisoners)!

  25. Amy says:

    Well Margaret, I attacked boldly and several borders looks much more controlled — if a little shorn and ragged.

    But I made an interesting and wonderful discovery. A bed of much overgrown thyme vulgaris that was in flower was full of honeybees!! Not full like in the good old days perhaps, but there were more honeybees than I’ve seen in months! So I left it untouched. Maybe there is something in thyme pollen that is a bee-tonic. I also plan to transplant thyme into all my gardens and allow it to overgrow and flower at will. Anything for the bees.

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