Hair Cuts Needed For Some Native Perennials

Hi Gang,

Years ago Flora for Fauna owner Karen Williams shared some sage advice about maintaining one of my favorite native perennials, New England Aster, and I’m about to share it with you.

NEW ENGLAND ASTER
2 HAIR CUTS: Memorial Day & 4th of July

Monarch-NE Aster-PSutton
New England Aster in full bloom (October 9) and providing nectar to dozens of Monarchs

New England Aster can get very tall and top heavy by the time it blooms in the fall. And the last thing any of us want is for its lovely spread of glowing purple flowers, nectar, and joy to be laying on the ground come fall.

To help it grow into a many-branched, bushy plant instead of a tall, gangly, top-heavy plant, all you need to do is to give it 2 hair cuts on or around the 1st two holidays of the growing season: Memorial Day and 4th of July. Of course these dates are not single-day events, but roughly when you want to give New England Aster its hair cuts.

Around Memorial Day, I cut each stem 1/2 (or 2/3) off (or about a foot or two off the top, depending on how tall it is, if that is easier for you to remember). I use big shears and just chop  away. What happens next is that each cut plant stem sends up 2 new shoots where it has been cut, in other words it branches and becomes more bushy!

Around 4th of July, I give my plants their 2nd hair cut (not back to the 1st cut, but cutting back some of the new growth since Memorial Day). You may want to be more creative for this hair cut and cut the many stems in your plant different lengths. For instance, give the stems in the foreground more of a hair cut, the stems in the middle less of a hair cut, and the stems in the back just a little hair cut. This way your plant stems will bloom at different heights.

You may find that some plants haven’t grown as tall as others, so you may choose to pass on the 2nd hair cut for some plants. If so, you’ll find that these plants will bloom earlier. This staggers the blooming period so that you have New England Aster nectar, color, and joy far longer in your wildlife garden.

Sutton fall gdn-w-sig
My garden on September 27th full of mounds of blooming asters, thanks to hair cuts earlier in the year.

A bit more advice: once given hair cuts, New England Aster has “ugly legs.” The stems below the 1st haircut look “not so nice” . . . the leaves darken and fall off and the stems are quite bare. So you’ll want to have other perennials in the foreground blocking that view, so you’re not looking at ugly bare legs.

You can give 1-2 haircuts to some other fall-blooming perennials that grow tall and flop, so they’ll instead branch and become more bushy:
Goldenrod
Sedum

For some summer-blooming plants that grow too tall for your garden, you can give them one haircut around Memorial Day, forcing them to branch, become bushier, and bloom lower. I do this with some of my favorite summer nectar plants so that I have an easier time seeing and photographing pollinators on them:
Culver’s Root
Ironweed
Joe-pye-weed
Sneezeweed
Blue Vervain
Boneset

You can always experiment on other summer and fall-blooming perennials too that have flopped in your garden. If you’re not sure how hair cuts will turn out on plants other than those I’ve mentioned, try giving a hair cut to one stem ONLY (or if you have several plants of Cut-leafed Coneflower, for example, in your garden, give one of them hair cuts so you can compare results with your uncut plants). Then see how your plant reacts and whether you like the results.

Happy Gardening,
Pat

26 Replies to “Hair Cuts Needed For Some Native Perennials”

    1. Donna, since my garden and woods are fenced I often forget about deer browse. Thanks for that reminder! Many folks with nibbling deer have their perennials given hair cuts on a regular basis with some interesting results.

    1. Hi Mark, Peonies are lovely but not native. Sorry, my expertise is with native plants. BUT, that said, a great book that you’ll want to get than can answer your question about Peonies and many other non-native plants (and some natives too) is Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s book, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden. Get it and let us know what you learn.

  1. Pat, I want to thank you for pointing out that pruning perennials too late in the season may discourage the pollinators from deriving the benefit from the plant.

    1. Hi Tony,

      Not sure. I’ve been tempted to do this with my fall-blooming Common Blue Wood Aster. We might each try it with some of our plants and see if we like the results. Happy Gardening!

  2. We went into the woods and snatched a beautiful NEA and planted it in our garden. They spread like wildfire and quickly over took everything. This spring we tore out roots where they did not belong and contained it to quickly realize we need to do this all through the growing season. Now I am going to take your advice and hopefully bush it out at the bottom. We love this free plant and so do the hummers, butterflies and bees. Thanks for your article on this well known plant, but often not put into backyard gardens.

    1. Hi Bridgett,

      I haven’t found that my New England Aster spreads from roots, but instead each clump gets bigger and bigger and bigger — and benefits from divisions ever few years. When I give New England Aster it’s haircuts, some times those haircuts take root and become new plants.

      But I have found that the native New York Aster spreads with a vengeance from roots. It actually freaked me out and I dug it up from my “formal” gardens. Each year some comes back from a piece of root I missed. It sounds like the plant you found in the wild was New York Aster and not New England Aster. Both benefit from haircuts.

      Happy Gardening, Pat

  3. One of my gardening gang members asked: Pat, don’t (Pearl Crescent) caterpillars feed on NE Aster (amongst others)? By trimming the asters, wouldn’t I be destroying any caterpillars that are feeding on the asters?

    1. I replied to her: You are right, Pearl Crescents and many other species lay their eggs on native asters (according to Doug Tallamy 112 butterflies & moths lay their eggs on native asters – to see the complete list of Tallamy’s TOP 20 native perennials and TOP 20 native woody plants used by our butterflies and moths go to his website: http://www.bringingnaturehome.net/what-to-plant.html).

      Because of this, when I perform the “hair cut” I let the clippings lay at the base of the plant. That way any caterpillars can crawl back up on live, healthy growth.

      Happy Gardening,
      Pat

  4. Garden Gang member, Debbie Hendershot, from Columbia, NJ asked this:

    Hi Pat,
    Do you cut your common milkweed now (early June)?
    Mine is ready to bloom its flowers (all are in blossom stage).
    Do you only cut some or all?

    1. I replied:

      Hi Debbie,

      In order to have Common Milkweed blooming later and full of lush growth for egg-laying Monarchs later when they are more plentiful, some people give their patch a partial haircut. You can see this process in the wild when a farmer mows a field with Common Milkweed growing in it and the stand comes back lusher than ever later in the summer. I’m never quite sure when to give Common Milkweed a haircut Sometimes I’ve cut some of my patch and it doesn’t regenerate (send up new growth), so I’m fearful of giving it all a haircut. I found one website that shared the following that leads me to believe that the best time to give Common Milkweed a haircut is early June:

      “Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) responds well to mowing. My best experience mowing common milkweed was with a dairy farmer who harvested first cutting from a hay field (over 100 acres) where milkweed was very common. First cutting was lush and ready early in June. Milkweed typically emerges from the ground the first week in May. In many years the monarchs are only just arriving in early June so the larva and pupa death from the mowing are minimal if at all. The pleasant surprise was the milkweed fully recovered and bloomed late July instead of July 1 and produced a full crop of seed although matured a week or two later than other wild milkweed. [from: http://www.ourhabitatgarden.org/creatures/milkweed-growing.html ]

      So, give it a try now in early June, but maybe not your entire patch . . . in case it doesn’t regenerate.

      Happy Gardening,
      Pat

  5. I think you can pinch/prune back Monarda in spring–I did this, because in my New England garden the poor bee balm got chewed up by awful worms in the buds last year. I read somebody reduced the worms ( tobacco worms?) by pruning the beel balm back so it bloomed later. This indeed seemed to help, and the bee balm I did not prune got ruined again by the worms. The ones I did prune bloomed very well and for a long time, and are being visited by swallowtails and hummingbirds (and bees of course).

    1. Hi Lisa, Thanks for this great advice. Sorry you have caterpillars decimating your Bee Balm. Maybe photo one or several and send them into Bug Guide to help you with an ID. I don’t think they are Tobacco Worms (which become one of the lovely Sphinx Moths), since they lay their eggs on plants that are in the Tomato and / or Tobacco Family. Happy Gardening!

    1. Hi Donna, New England Asters are fall bloomiers, hence these early haircuts so they branch and become bushier by the time they bloom. I can’t think of any of my spring blooming natives that I’d cut.

  6. Hello, Enjoying the conversation. I cut back New York Ironweed today, and looking at the Helianthus, of which I have two varities in the garden. What do you think? Give it a chop for the fall blooming floppsies?

    1. Hi Kim, I’ve cut back my Tall (or Giant) Sunflower,Helianthus giganteus, and been spared the flop! So, go for it. If you’re not sure, you can always cut back some of them and see how you like the results.

    1. Hi Ellen,
      New England Asters are easy to divide. I take a shovel and slice the plant in half (in 2 chunks) or into 4 pieces/chunks. I leave one piece in place and pry out the other 1/2 (or 3 pieces). The piece left in place, if not too disturbed, will bloom at the typical time. The pieces pulled from the ground and moved to new spots (or given away to friends) will bloom slightly later, giving your garden more blooming time for New England Aster. Have fun with it. Happy Gardening, Pat

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