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In areas with mild climates (like mine here in California), even though most of our garden still looks pretty good, you may notice some of the more tender annuals are long gone (see you next year coleus!), or a few perennials are already fast asleep (anyone seen your phlox lately?)
However, during the next few weeks, all of a sudden your garden will start to look very different. Adjectives like straggly, overgrown, and leggy come to mind. Even though there may still be a few leaves or flowers on your plants they’re trying to tell you they’re tired and ready for a long winter’s nap.
You may not be sure when, if or how to cut your plants back but by examining them closely you can learn to read their subtle clues. I’m not talking about those plants that have no life whatsoever left in their leaves (an obvious clue that it needs cutting back), but plants that still look fairly decent and will continue to do so throughout the winter. Those are the tricky ones to know when and how to prune.
In USDA’s milder zones (9 and up) some of the plants that most commonly confuse gardeners this time of year are penstemon, euphorbias, cuphea, leonotis, phlomis, heucheras, iberis and salvias. Even though they’re still green, they look overgrown, their stems now thick, woody and no longer supple, and their flowers are few and far between.
But an easy way to read your plant is to get down on all fours and closely examine the center of it. Scraping the old leaves and debris aside you’ll most likely notice tiny little leaves along the woody stems. That’s your plant’s way of telling you it’s too leggy and needs to be cut back. It’s also telling you not to worry that you’ll kill it, since it’ll bounce right back with the little leaves that are just waiting for the chance to grow. If you don’t cut it back, the plant will continue to expend lots of energy keeping those old leaves and flowers alive, when it could be re-directing it’s energy towards the new leaves.
So cut it back hard, a few inches from the crown, near a set of new leaves. Wait a few weeks and you’ll be surprised how quickly your bundle of ‘sticks’ fills in with new growth. Soon you’ll have a lush and tidy plant again. In warmer winters, your plant will remain this size until spring’s warm weather awakens it and it springs into action! One warning, though - if you live in a climate with cold winters don’t prune these plants in the fall as you don’t want the tender, new leaves to get zapped by a hard frost. You’ll need to wait until early spring to prune your plants.