Just cut it down

by AnneWareham on October 30, 2013

Post image for Just cut it down

Half of gardening is putting things in. Things then tend to grow themselves. Then we cut them down. Very simple, really, for a whole industry of advice giving.

I have now been gardening at Veddw for over 25 years, so I think I can have confidence that what we do generally works. Certainly as far as growing perennials. (Box blight and the miserable looking yews are another story) And one thing I don’t do is fertilise, and another is make compost.

For years now we have been cutting all the plants down, either in the autumn (or winter if we’ve been lolling around too much) or in the spring, and leaving the debris to mulch the plots.

Front garden cutting down S 2 Veddw, Copyright Anne Wareham

Jeff working hard at cutting down the Front Garden. (thanks, Jeff)

In this case it’s Jeff. Sometimes it’s me. And we use hedge trimmers. Or a bladed strimmer.

The initial effect must look very strange to people used to looking at bare soil in winter. Our beds are never bare and they start off, after the cut – in this case at the end of October – looking like this:

Front garden cutting down S, Veddw, Copyright Anne Wareham


It’s quite colourful. It’s exciting too, after seeing it all going over and looking messy. Suddenly it’s all flat, and the hedges, clipped Osmanthus and the rails emerge. Love it.

Most of the rest of the garden gets left until spring, because it’s less in your face and it has more plants in which look good as they decay. The grasses, for example,

Miscanthus flowers,Veddw, Copyright Anne Wareham 063

Miscanthus flowers

but not only them:

Winter foliage, Veddw, copyright Charles Hawes

Nothing like a frost though, to enhance the effect. Copyright Charles Hawes. (you can tell…)

It then all quietly rots down, returning goodness to the soil. Strangely, though it all looks so random, it also acts as a pretty effective weed barrier. Cleavers gets through, but not much else in the way of annual weeds. Or annual seeds. So I don’t get anywhere with plants like Verbena bonariensis or Welsh poppies.

Better, I think, than carting it all off to a compost heap and then bringing it, much depleted, back again.

Never mind you don’t have to turn it!

Anne Xx

Helper and stone eater

Helper and stone eater


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Elizabeth Cornwell October 30, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Do you just cut down all the herbaceous plants?I have stuff like crocosmia( which I hate)proper geraniums & japanese anemones in my “herbaceous” border.Can I just cut them & leave them over winter?I must say its my type of gardening,I cant faff about composting & mulching,its on very heavy clay& by now is very wet!

AnneWareham October 30, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Those are just the kinds of things Jeff was cutting down today. Yes you can, you can! If you don’t want to do it now you can leave them till spring when they’ll be dried out and you might just be able to jump up and down on them. Up to you. They’ll thank you for it. (err..not literally)

Susan Sims October 30, 2013 at 5:33 pm

I do this with all of my leaf litter. Never understood people who bag it up and send it away. Besides, the litter is always gone by mid-summer thanks to worms and other crawly things.

AnneWareham October 30, 2013 at 6:10 pm

Quite. And leaves from paths and lawns tend to blow on to beds to rot down, which is helpful of them.

Julieanne Porter (@GwenfarsGarden) October 30, 2013 at 5:49 pm

That’s really interesting. I’ve done that previously with veg on my allotment but for some reason didn’t think of doing it at home with the perennials. I want to continue to make compost, as it also deals with kitchen waste and need to mix it with garden waste. However, this makes a lot of sense and as my borders grow (they are only a few months old) and I have more material, I’ll give this a go. Thanks Anne.

AnneWareham October 30, 2013 at 6:07 pm

Glad to help. There’ll always be lawn mowings and hedge cuttings for compost if necessary. (our council takes our food waste to compost but we do get some garden stuff inevitably). If you want it to rot quickly because it seems it may be unsightly start cutting from top of plant rather than the bottom, so you can get lots of smaller pieces as you work down.

Pat Webster October 30, 2013 at 8:39 pm

Next book title: The Lazy Gardener. Bound to be a best seller, I know I’d buy it. But no composting? Surely that’s heresy.

AnneWareham October 30, 2013 at 11:38 pm

Nice title… I accumulate compost, in that it’s a place for waste plant material of various kinds. But last year I gave a large binful of it away: I have no use for it.
What would I do with it? It’s bound to have weed seeds in.
If I need extra mulch I’d rather use bark or chippings from a friendly tree surgeon.

Jane Stevens October 31, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Are you just very vigllant about perennial weeds throughout the year? Or do they never come? And tree seedlings? Isn’t this just coppicing from a very early stage as far as they are concerned?

Good post, very interesting. And I’ve been rereading and re-enjoying your book.

AnneWareham October 31, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Hi Jane – and very happy to hear that about the book. And to hear from you. But you will hate me for this.

Perennial weeds really merit a post of their own. I struggled with them when establishing the garden, and still to some extent in a new garden. And that’s the thing – once plants are established weeds are dramatically reduced, especially, of course, when a mulch is maintained. I do use glyphosate in the spring (don’t tell anyone or I’ll be taken out and shot) – an hour round the whole two acres with a handheld spray once or twice does it.

Tree seedlings are a pain – we’d revert to woodland if we stopped gardening -but when they have about half an inch diameter stems a little cap of ammonium sulphate does it. So until they are that size I often just cut their tops off.

The critical thing that these things achieve is no soil disturbance, so no weed seeds brought up. When I plant something new I then mulch immediately round it with chippings.

Paths are definitely a whole separate thing, in case you ask, that I can’t answer in a comment..


Jane Stevens October 31, 2013 at 8:57 pm

Bit puzzled about why I would hate you for this. Not at all.

Very interested about the ammonium sulphate. I used to use ammonium sulphamate and found it very good, but they took it off the market. All these details are fascinating, exactly what is so hard to find out about. Do you have to shift the mulch from the crowns of the plants in the spring to let them through? Do you get rotting problems? I have always thrown stuff into the back of borders and round shrubs but never really had enough of clean sweep of herbaceous just to leave it all there. Mixed borders mean a more piecemeal approach, and that lets weeds through. Quite agree on the no disturbance issues though. A counsel of great efficiency.

AnneWareham October 31, 2013 at 11:35 pm

O, I have come to expect great disapproval for the use of any chemical, so very glad of your response. Ammonium sulphate is still available in the uk, its official use has changed. No, I never shift the mulch, though I don’t let mulches touch the trunks of trees and shrubs. Plants come cheerfully through, just as I suppose is natural for them, through leaf litter and their own collapsed foliage. Not aware of rotting problems.I have mixed borders and treat them the same (there are two shrubs in the front garden which I used to illustrate this piece).

Still reading your blog when I have time to search for it and cheering on your great enterprise. You need methods like this: you have so much to deal with. Xxx

Alex Hofmann October 31, 2013 at 3:13 pm

While I applaud your bold approach, I’m not willing to cut and leave my herbaceous plants in situ all winter and spring because of the unsightly mess this would create in borders which abut the house – it only takes me an hour to remove the cut material and it creates very little compost – an exercise which I completed two weeks ago.

Once the beds were cleared, I paid £50 for 2 tonnes of well-rotted manure to be delivered to my house and last weekend I shovelled the manure onto all the herbaceous beds and mulched all shrubs and yew and box hedges. The manure is spread to a depth of around 4 inches on the herbaceous beds and I am hoping for bigger flowers and fewer weeds next year… I realise that I’ll lose some fortuitous self-seeders but I did transplant dozens of tiny verbena bonariensis and verbascum seedlings before mulching.

Fingers crossed for 2014!

AnneWareham October 31, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Well, there are a few flaws with that, but you are not going to want to know about them just after all that.

However, don’t take my words for anything – over the winter get and read ‘The Informed Gardener’ by Linda Chalker-Scott. (http://ow.ly/qmG8v) Your life may be transformed. Xx

Alex Hofmann October 31, 2013 at 4:06 pm

You can’t tease me like that: ‘there are a few flaws’! I think you mean all the weed seeds which I could be spreading around, but the manure is very well-rotted (no smell etc) and I’d prefer to add a few weeds and improve the soil naturally. And it looks very nice for now!

If I were to use the compost from my compost heap, I am certain I would have spread more weeds around.

AnneWareham October 31, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Don’t wish to tease (or to make you feel fed up!) but a proper reply would be a whole new blog post. Perhaps I’ll do that for you soon, then, but meanwhile that book is on Kindle. If you have a Kindle you can read that straight away.

Alex Hofmann October 31, 2013 at 5:36 pm

Hmmm – I’ve read many books on gardening but not this one – happy to give it a go on the basis of your recommendation. I’ll let you know what I think in a few weeks’ time, providing that YOU let me know what’s wrong with the manure as a mulch approach!

Charles October 31, 2013 at 5:27 pm

I don’t like mess either. But I have developed different feelings about different kinds of mess. Where Anne has just had the Front Garden cut down I am actually quite happy with the look of the stems of the plants lying there as a mulch. I think that this is partly because the material is lying quite flat and partly because there is not a wide range of different plants that have been strimmed. What I never like is to have the paths looking messy, so I will be out there with the hoover soon.

Alex Hofmann October 31, 2013 at 5:53 pm

What sort of hoover would that be?!?

skr November 2, 2013 at 12:49 am

you chopped everything down, then hauled it off because it looks shabby, and then brought 4in of manure in? I might be missing something here, but why not just leave the chop in the beds and hide it by covering it with 4in of manure?

Alex Hofmann November 4, 2013 at 8:25 am

I didn’t chop it down yet, since I like the winter structure from things like echinops, rudbeckia, verbena bonariensis and fennel. I’ll chop it down in a few weeks’ time once they start to disintegrate and see what comes up in the spring, after I’ve shaken out the seedheads.

AnneWareham November 4, 2013 at 9:36 am

I’m trying verbena bonariensis again, to see if it will seed through the debris after all. (I like to have my cake and eat it..) So I’ve got a couple in pots sitting in the middle of the beds right now.

Amy Murphy October 31, 2013 at 11:52 pm

I like your approach. I myself don’t cut down anything (except peonies) until the fall…here where winters are long and hard I like to have even the remnants of a garden standing, even under snow. I don’t, however, collect the leaves. I leave them on the perennial beds to decompose as they will. It is very unusual in my neighborhood to do so, unique in fact, but I like what they do for the soil, and for my back not having to collect them.

AnneWareham November 1, 2013 at 9:19 am

Yes, of course collecting leaves is another mad thing people will do! Last year I said on here to leave them because they will blow from flat surfaces (like lawns) on to the beds to rot, but there was so much rain for a time that I though they might not do that, but stay put. Watched with some anxiety for a time (don’t like to mislead anyone). But, in the end, they went.(though on grass I think sometimes the worms pull them under)

Cindy at enclos*ure November 1, 2013 at 8:31 am

Have you ever seen this wonderful short video of American garden writer Ruth Stout? She wrote about mulch gardening in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I think you two are on the same page.

I love that you do this. I have been practicing “chop and drop” for years. For one thing, in a small urban garden, it’s hard to find room for a compost pile. Here in Rwanda, my gardener was trained that neatness is everything, so he would sweep the flower beds clean to the dirt. (He also would like each plant to have its own couple of square feet of empty dirt like plants in a medieval woodcut of a garden.) Now, although we have two compost piles, all the smaller cuttings and leaves are dropped and left in place. I often put a layer of pine needles (from our own trees) on top for a little polish.

Cindy at enclos*ure November 1, 2013 at 8:44 am

Sorry — it looks like the video has been taken off You Tube for copyright issues; although I did find a couple of clips with no sound, but Hungarian subtitles.

Here’s a good post about Stout on A Way to Garden: http://awaytogarden.com/2010-resolution-a-no-work-garden.

AnneWareham November 1, 2013 at 9:27 am

AND it was the wonderful Ruth Stout who put me on to mulching in the first place and thereby made the Veddw possible.I had two acres of field and for a while I thought I would have to dig it all. I think I may have credited her (hope so) in The Bad Tempered Gardener. Thanks for all this great stuff. Xx

AnneWareham November 1, 2013 at 9:23 am

O, I love that about your Rwandan gardener sweeping the flower beds. I bet some people in uk will read that and rush out with their brooms. That empty soil around plants is the strange effect you get with hoeing, I discovered (http://veddw.com/blog/throw-the-hoe/). Though I wonder if you could do it deliberately for aesthetic effect with plants of good form? As you say, like the medieval woodcuts.

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AnneWareham November 7, 2013 at 6:48 pm

Well, how motivating is that!? Thank you. I will do my best. Xx

Alex Hofmann November 26, 2013 at 3:26 pm

So I’ve been pondering what the problems with using a thick manure mulch in the autumn might be for the last few weeks (apart from the issues regarding horses only having one stomach while cows have two, meaning that cow manure generally contains fewer weed seeds). While doing some research I came across this article from the US and I wondered if you agreed with it? http://www.gardenmyths.com/what-is-the-real-value-of-organic-fertilizer/

AnneWareham November 26, 2013 at 5:02 pm

I just mulch with plant debris which over 25 years appears to have worked well. Don’t want ornamentals too vigorous = staking. Bluntly – why do all that pointless work? There’s enough to do….

And if weeds don’t arrive in it they’ll seed into manure in no time. That is an unthinkable price to pay for giving yourself backache

Alex Hofmann November 27, 2013 at 1:35 pm

So you have nothing against a thick mulch of well-rotted manure other than the fact it could give you backache and ‘might’ provide a place for weeds to seed – not sure about that. Our circumstances are very different: my garden is young (3.5 years old) and I garden on a thin sandy soil and I’ve planted a lot of rootballed yews, box and shrubs, all of which will benefit from a good organic mulch.

I’m also 38 years old and I climb mountains for fun, so I am very happy to spread a couple of tonnes of manure without regarding it as a hardship. Having read the Bad Tempered Gardener, I know that we have different views on gardening as exercise! Anyway, a good debate and one which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.

AnneWareham November 27, 2013 at 1:42 pm

If it weren’t sandy and well drained (this is for other people’s benefit) I’d say be careful around yew especially as it needs drainage more than organic matter. Goo isn’t good for everything. Xx

AnneWareham November 27, 2013 at 1:46 pm

And did I already suggest you read Linda Chalker-Scott?

Alex Hofmann November 27, 2013 at 1:49 pm

You did, and I am. Does she come out against manure as a mulch?

AnneWareham November 27, 2013 at 1:52 pm

Don’t remember. Just that she is the source of the kind of information you will appreciate. Xx

Helen Pitel February 16, 2014 at 9:17 am

Great blog …i am a Permaculture sort of gardener.. The approach is to make gardening less work and the thinking is often counter intuitive. People are so used to gardening being hard work. What you describe i would call in-situ composting and Permaculture gardeners do it all the time returning plant wastes directly to the soil. It also boosts worm and microorganism activity in soil. Its winning all round!

AnneWareham February 16, 2014 at 9:31 am

True! And people still recommend gardening as a way to keep fit..while not telling us to go back to churning our washing by hand in a tub….

AnneWareham October 31, 2013 at 5:45 pm

OK then. A bargain – though if you read the book you probably won’t need my post! Xx

Alex Hofmann October 31, 2013 at 5:51 pm

I’m guessing it’s not what they teach in the RHS level II exams…

AnneWareham October 31, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Would be good to think it might be, but I doubt it. I admit I taught myself. I hadn’t got time or money for conventional methods.

Alex Hofmann November 1, 2013 at 9:16 am

Doing the RHS exams unfortunately taught me very little about practical gardening. Like you, I am self-taught from around age 5 and I tend to be pretty good at making plants grow. As I recall (10 years ago), they were more focused on soil types and botany than anything which I use on a daily basis like propagation and mulching techniques. I studied for the exams independently so it cost me nothing to sit them.

Separately, I was mulling your approach over last night and I wondered if you have a slug problem with all the cut vegetation? In the world of commercial agriculture, rape seed is often planted straight into a field of cut stubble by the combine harvester which is simultaneously cutting wheat. The field is not ploughed that year, but the farmer typically spends a significant amount on slug control due to the increased vegetation (chaff, stubble) etc which is left on the surface.

AnneWareham November 1, 2013 at 9:35 am

I am not aware of a particular slug problem. I grow hostas, so I slug pellet them with organic pellets but the rest of the gardens are effectively under permanent mulch and show no sign of slug damage.

Interesting about farming. Note that I’m not growing plants from seed in any of my garden. Maybe that’s where the seedling poppies and verbena go and not just smothered by the mulch. Well, in that case, they are welcome.