I tend to prefer to clean up the garden in the spring rather than the fall. That is when I’m motivated to do it, as I am dreaming of the spring garden and looking forward to getting re-acquainted with the plants. It’s better for the garden, too, as the dead stems and foliage protect the crown of the plant in the winter, and the birds can eat the seeds, if any. The only thing I religiously cut back in the fall are irises and daylilies, but that’s just because I can’t stand how slimy they get over the winter.
Eventually, however, you have to pull your wellies on and get busy. It’s a good idea to get the dead plant material out of the way before the new growth starts, otherwise you might cut some of that by mistake. For the most part, you want to cut perennials back to about an inch or two above the base. Don’t cut closer than that or you may injure the crown. Cut less if the new growth has already started – it will cover the “stumps” soon. Don’t cut things like roses, woody perennials (ones that have bark) early spring bloomers like Moss Phlox or vines back unless you have read up on them and are sure that they will do what you want after you cut them. Some things only bloom on new growth, and so you can be set back years if you cut them back too much. But for perennials like Echinacea, Shasta Daisies, Geraniums, etc, cutting them back can be very beneficial.
Fallen leaves can be raked up and composted or, better still, put through a leaf shredder and put back on the garden. There, they will release nutrients all summer as they break down, and you won’t need to add additional fertiliser. I also mulch about every other year with a mixture of compost and shredded pine bark, just for good measure. The trick is to do it before the plants put on too much growth, otherwise it’s a rotten job.
And that’s it! Your garden now looks neat and tidy, your plants will be fed, and you can sit back and enjoy it. (For awhile!)