GARDENING: It’s OK to cut back perennials now while still protecting overwintering pollinators

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

UGH! Last weekend was beautiful and then we had snow again this week. I believe everyone is ready for good weather and are quite finished with snow.

By the way, was anyone sore on Monday from working in the landscape last weekend? I am glad that I had to go to my grandson’s basketball game on Saturday or I would have been a mess on Sunday.

I have this tendency to overdo it when it’s nice out and I am on a roll working in the garden. Then the next day I am so worn out I can’t move. On top of that, my gardening muscles aren’t quite in shape yet so there is that. Soon, I hope!

Before heading outside last Saturday, I noticed a meme going around on social media that said we should wait until temperatures are in the 50F range on a regular basis before cutting back any perennials and cleaning up the beds.

The purpose behind this statement is that many of our native bees and other pollinators use the woody stems of perennials and the leaf litter as overwintering sites.

ExploreFISH FRY GUIDE: Where to find delicious deals in the Dayton area

I kept thinking about this as I stood gazing at all the pollinators on my witchhazel that were in full bloom. There were various native bee species as well as a fly species. I didn’t see any honeybees on Saturday.

I have a lot of perennials to cut back this time of the year that I gave this some thought before I started cutting. I got quite a few of them cut back and I noticed that many of them were already sprouting.

I appreciate the meme that was spreading the word about pollinators, but the fact of the matter is this: you can go ahead and cut back your perennials now without causing harm to the overwintering pollinators.

Do this by cutting perennials them back now, but be patient about cleaning out the bed (removing stems and leaves). I cut all of mine back and left them lay in the bed.

I have shrubs in my perennial border and tucked some of the stems under these shrubs. Shrubs make good overwintering and nesting areas for pollinators.

When the temperatures are in the 50F consistently, I will go in with a leaf rake and pull out any of the stems. I tend to allow the leaves to remain in the garden, on top of the mulch as they eventually break down.

I have black locust trees and their leaves are smaller. Larger sized leaves are more of a challenge as they take longer to break down.

I place the stems directly in my compost pile without chopping them up in case the pollinators haven’t matured. This allows them to complete their life cycle in the compost pile and head out for flowers later.

In some cases, like with ornamental grasses, I use hedge trimmers and cut about four inches of the foliage at a time and let this drop to the ground around the grasses. It eventually serves as mulch for the bed.

Don’t feel guilty if you have work to get done in the garden and still want to take care of the pollinators. You can do BOTH!

Pamela Corle-Bennett is the state master gardener volunteer coordinator and horticulture educator for Ohio State University Extension. Contact her by email at