Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pruning Daylilies in Mid-Summer

Herbaceous pruning (cutting the foliage of perennial plants) has a few uses. Often, it is used to delay the bloom of a plant, or to make it have better branching instead of just one main stem. This is known across the pond as the "Chelsea Chop", because gardeners in the UK can plan on cutting their perennials around time of the Chelsea Flower Show. (The show is usually held at the end of May.)

Another good reason for pruning perennial foliage occurs later in the season. During the hot months of July and August, perennial foliage often starts to look old and tattered. For many years, I sighed and assumed that yellowing leaves meant my garden was passing into its fall foliage already.

Before: Hemerocallis waiting for their trim in the Front Woodland

A few years ago, I started experimenting with cutting back (also known as "dead-leafing") my hardy Geraniums, lamb's ears (Stachys byzantine), lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and Hosta. Even that took a bit of courage at first, but my plants looked better for it!

Then I read Tracy DiSabato-Aust's thorough treatment on herbaceous pruning in her book, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden. New challenge: the bold step of cutting some plants to the ground. This was supposed to regenerate their foliage. But would it really work?

After: Post chop. Hedge shears made quick work of the entire Front Woodland.
I love daylilies early in the year. Their flowers are beautiful (sometimes scented!), their foliage covers the ground quickly in early spring and they are generally undemanding. Once they are done blooming however, I begin to despise their tattered appearance. In past years, I have torn off just the yellowing leaves under the base of my daylilies (Hemerocallis). This year, I decided to be brave and cut down the entire foliage clump when they had finished blooming.

After: Front Woodland with Hemerocallis nubs.
 I was very pleased with the overall appearance of the Front Woodland once I had cut the daylily foliage down at the end of July. It looked kept. Rather a satisfying bit of restraint at the most jungle-like time of year.  And with the Sedum 'Acre' ground cover in this garden, there was less bare mulch seen than I anticipated. I rather hate bare mulch. Better than dirt, yes, but that is what drives me to cover it with plants instead.

And for those of you wondering: Just a couple of weeks later, they are sending up new foliage. We have had some rain this week, which has helped them to recover quickly. The hope is that they will have new, fresh looking foliage all the way til frost.

Before: Cherry Corner
In the case of our Cherry Corner Garden, my decision to chop the daylilies worked out even better. The black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia) were barely visible at all above the mess of foliage. Once it has been cut down, I was delighted to be able to see the yellow flowers dancing above the annuals. This is the best this garden has looked yet at this time of year. 

After: Wow! I could not tell there were that many susans back there!
All that was left was a wheelbarrow load of foliage. After a long afternoon/morning of herbaceous pruning, I usually park this sucker in the garage and deal with unloading it later. Are you as lazy as I am?

Happy pruning!


  1. I znowu trzeba będzie rok czekać, żeby zakwitły. Pozdrawiam

  2. How wonderful Julie. Mine are usually still blooming even now but those done early i will try this trick. i also cut back many perennials as they finish to encourage new blooms unless of course the spent flowers provide seeds for birds...

  3. Great!
    I am going to cut my daylilies back too.
    Thanks for the tip!

  4. Wow, that took a lot of courage, but good for you, it worked !

  5. I, too, have been just taking off the spent foliage. This sounds like a great idea that I need to try. Thanks...

  6. Great post. I agree it takes a lot of courage. I'm chicken, but I'm going to give this a try!

  7. I'm going to try this next year as it may spur the plants into flowering sa second time. (it does seem like another job I may not get round to doing but your results show its worth the effort. Christina

  8. Thanks for ideas. I do prune a lot but now will prune my daylilies and things.
    Sheila Stephens, Eau Claire, WI

  9. Wow, Julie! Great post on herbaceous pruning! I'll have to try it on my daylilies. I was just noticing a couple days ago how ugly and brown they were looking now. I've already pruned my salvia and Shasta daisies. They look much better. Your Cherry Corner Garden is looking great this time of year.

  10. Dear Julie, I enjoyed this very informative post. I generally cut my daylilies down in stages, but I am going to be brave and take them down to the ground. Your beds definitely look tidier than mine right now. P. x

  11. I found this very interesting. I garden in south western Canada and find that if the daylilies are watered on a regular basis the foliage stays green and lush right into late summer and early fall. Of course some varieties stay better than others. I'm just wondering if by cutting them down so early doesn't force too much new growth and if this will drain the plants energy for next years blooms?

    1. Sensible Gardening,
      Thanks for your comment. I am interested to hear that your daylilies look good all season! That is to be treasured. I have a love-hate relationship with Hemerocallis since it often looks so bad after flowering.

      Personally, I have not noticed them to be drained after cutting. Other gardeners that I have read actually suggest cutting them down as a way to preserve the life of a plant when the conditions are as dry as they sometimes are in mid-summer in zone 5 and warmer. But it seems like testing it out in your own region would be the only way to know for sure in your wet conditions. I would love to hear your findings!


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