Perennials in the Fall Garden

When it comes to gardening, it’s a well known fact that every gardener has their own way of doing things – and that’s okay! But it does mean that sometimes experienced gardeners send conflicting messages to newcomers about when, and how, to approach seasonal tasks in the garden. This October we’re looking at perennials in fall: what they are, how they behave, and different reasons gardeners may choose to cut cut back their perennial plants in now, or wait till spring.


What is a Perennial?

Perennials are plants that come back year after year, producing new stems, leaves and flowers each growing season only for the above ground portions to die back during the winter months. Daylilies, peonies, purple coneflower and hostas are all examples of perennial plants commonly found in St. Louis gardens.


When Should I Cut Back my Perennials?

The first rule of fall garden clean-ups: unless something is seriously diseased, wait for it to starting dying back before you cut back! The cooler temperatures of fall signal to trees, shrubs and perennials to begin preparing for winter, starting by storing up food and energy. Many plants will actually start this process by pulling nutrients out of their leaves and stems, moving them down into their root system to be used as fuel throughout the winter. This is what causes our plants to “dieback” in stages over a period of weeks each fall. By waiting until plants have died back to clear them from the garden, gardeners are ensuring a stronger, healthier plant will return next spring.


Best Practice for Cutting Back Perennials:

Although there will always be exceptions, most perennials do best when gardeners cut them back to approximately 1 inch above soil level, and remove the dead plant material from the area. This prevents gardeners from accidentally damaging shallow roots while cutting and the remaining stems also serve as “I am here!” markers for anyone mulching, digging, or planning to add plants to existing beds in the following year.

Not sure if you should cut back a specific plant? Swing by your local garden center to ask about best practices in your neighborhood, or send us your questions at [email protected]!


3 Reasons to Cut Back Perennials in Fall:

Reduce Problems with Pests & Diseases Next Year

It’s a well known fact that the biggest challenge in gardening isn’t necessarily getting things to grow. Sometimes, it’s all a gardener can do to prevent pests and diseases from hijacking the harvest! Despite not being food crops (usually) ornamental perennial plants are still susceptible to a range of diseases, insects, and other pests that can leave plants looking lackluster or downright unhealthy by the end of the year. By cutting back and removing dead leaves and stems, gardeners can encourage healthy new growth the following spring without the risk over overwintering a garden menace.  

Drop by the University of Missouri Extension to learn more about preventing disease in the garden.

Tip: Bare soil often becomes compacted and loses much of it’s surface nutrients as winter snows and rains leach them away. To protect your soil, cover bare areas with a 3-4 inch layer of compost or plant a cover crop such as annual rye grass in fall.

Maintain Plant Size

Some perennials (and many ornamental shrubs) can grow to impressive sizes over the course of a single summer – and keep growing the following year. Prevent plants from outgrowing their space by cutting them back during the fall when there’s less risk of shock or attracting pests!

A Tidy Appearance

Gardens bursting with crops and stunning flower displays in summer give way to withered stalks and wilted leaves in fall – something that isn’t always appreciated by the neighbors. If your garden is in a public or highly visible space, consider cutting back perennial plants as they die back to keep your garden looking well-maintained and cared for to earn a little good will from the neighborhood.

Looking for a way to keep things looking tidy without cutting back everything? Try removing a few things at a time, then stepping back to check the overall effect. We recommend starting with peonies, daylilies and hostas while leaving hydrangeas and coneflowers for last. For best results, cut back to 1 inch above the soil level.


3 Reasons to Leave Perennials Standing in Fall:

A tidy garden may be aesthetically pleasing to the surrounding neighbors, but there are several benefits to leaving dead stalks and leaves in the garden over winter.

Winter Shelter for Local Wildlife

One of the downsides of living in an urban environment is the lack of habitat for local wildlife, and this can be especially challenging during the winter when small animals are most in need of shelter from wind and predators. For gardeners aiming to encourage and support local wildlife populations, waiting to cut back perennials until spring can provide additional cover and shelter.

Looking for a good reference to building a wildlife-friendly garden habitat? Check out this excellent guide by Penn State Extension Service.

Winter Food Source for Local Wildlife

Thanks to the Grow Native campaign, more and more of the perennials we see around St. Louis community gardens are actually native plants, such as purple coneflower, and they provide more than colorful seasonal interest. Many native species also serve as a valuable food source for local wildlife throughout the winter months – if you leave the dried seedheads and berries intact. Black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, and sunflowers are some of the most common plants we find in gardens that we recommend letting stand.

Looking for ways to add natural food sources to the garden? Stop by the National Wildlife Federation and the Missouri Botanical Gardens to learn more.

Winter Interest

Winter is a beautiful season in its own right, but by the time January rolls around the lack of visual interest found in many modern landscapes can leave gardeners feeling dull. Give your garden a bit of visual interest this winter by leaving perennials with interesting architecture or colorful stems and berries standing until late winter/early spring.

Stop by the Gateway Gardener for a little winter interest inspiration.


The Takeaway

At the end of the day, there’s pros and cons to cutting back perennials at any time of year, meaning it’s up to each individual gardener to decide what is the right time and method for their garden – there’s no right or wrong way!

Meet the Wild West Community Garden

Wild West Community Garden – Growing Friendships, Educational Opportunities and Vegetables Since 2011

Wild West Community Garden
Images of flowers and produce grown in the Wild West Community Garden.

By Chrissie McConnell, Wild West Community Garden Leader, Advanced Master Gardener


There is no a better way to tell our story than to sit down with Jodi Smedley, the visionary and founder of our spectacular garden. I had the perfect opportunity to sit down with her and she will be the first to tell you it took a village- Here’s our story…


McConnell: Where did your inspiration and vision come from?

Smedley: A really difficult situation, the sudden death of my brother Gregg. We both shared a passion for gardening. This was a way to turn a very difficult situation into something beautiful and remain connected via The Gregg Witwen Memorial Garden.

McConnell: Can you share how this vision became a reality?

Wild West Community Garden 02
Pizza garden at the Wild West Community Garden.

Smedley: There was available land on the Wildwood Family YMCA property. I saw the perfect opportunity! I proposed the idea. A focus group was identified and there were about thirty people on board with this plan. From there a steering committee was developed all with the help of Nathan Brandt the Horticulture Specialist with the St. Louis MU Extension program. Initial funding was procured through local, community businesses and supportive individuals.


McConnell: What was your connection with the YMCA at this time and how did they support this vision?

Smedley: At the time I had been working in the membership department and to- date I have been employed at the Wildwood Family YMCA for fifteen years. The mission of the garden is to provide a peaceful, neighborly and safe setting that encourages gardeners to gather, socialize, learn and share the benefits of organic gardening, environmental stewardship and community support through bounty sharing to local food pantries. Growing a healthy community is consistent of that with the YMCA, being youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.

McConnell: Can you share some of the important organizations, groups and businesses that have contributed to the garden’s development and growth over the past six years?

Smedley:  Some of the fabulous people that have helped us include Lucky’s Market, Corporate Y Partners, St. Louis Master Gardeners, AmeriCorps, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Eaton Bussmann, Kohl’s Ellisville and of course Gateway Greening and the Wildwood Family YMCA!

McConnell:  The groundbreaking for the garden was in 2011 and now it’s 2016! How has the garden grown and flourished?


1.We’ve expanded and now have 55 raised garden beds and are land locked.   

2.We have a Lucky’s Market Learning Garden with 8 raised beds in which children’s educational programming occurs, including YMCA day camp activities. There is a worm bin, pizza garden and a pollinator garden.

3.The P.A.R. program (Plant -A-Row For The Hungry) has been developed.  

4.We have developed designated berms for our native pollinators.  We won the Gateway Greening 2016 award for Best Biodiversity in a Garden.

5.In 2016 funding was secured for a youth educator.

6.We are an official Monarch Waystation.

7.Homeschool programming has been developed.

8.Taste of The Garden events in conjunction with The University of Missouri Extension Program.

9.Strong communication development through our garden newsletter, section leaders, steering committee, adult education programs, garden committees and e-mail garden tips.

10.The most generous individuals who give their time sharing their talents and knowledge way beyond our garden guidelines.


McConnell: Our beautiful oasis also lends itself to offer individuals peaceful rests, reflection and relaxation watching the sunset on a cozy bench or watching the abundance of butterflies on the wide array of flowers. It is definitely an experience for all of our human senses to enjoy.


Jodi is currently the Corporate and Community Collaborator for the Wildwood Family YMCA and a Master Gardener.


The Wild West Community Garden –Growing a Healthy Community One Garden at a time!   We are located on the property of the Wildwood Family YMCA in Wildwood Missouri- c’mon out!

Fresh Starts Community Garden

Fresh Starts Community Garden - Before pictureOnce upon a time, in the city of St Louis, MO, there was a certain vacant city lot, and on it was nothing but tall grass and equally tall weeds. It was also a dumping place for plenty of trash, in all forms from various places and people. So one lady, by the name of Rosie Willis, decided something positive should be done about that city lot – a blight on the whole area.

A garden! That would create beauty as well as a great source for fresh, organic vegetables for the surrounding neighborhood residents. This was in the year of our Lord 2009. So what did Rosie do? Well, first she asked her neighbors if they would like a vegetable garden on the lot, where all the trash, mean weeds and grass was growing. Everyone was thrilled about such an idea! So, as spokesperson for her neighbors, Rosie went to City Hall. There, she checked all the records are kept on local land and buildings, and discovered that the land belonged to the Comptrollers Office. The director was eager to lease the land to Rosie’s community group for only $1.00 dollar for five years!!

Fresh Starts Community Garden fall work day

Hallelujah, hallelujah! The land was theirs, and Rosie and her neighbors could start their garden. But how???

Rosie and her neighbors didn’t have money to buy the things they needed as start up gardeners. But that didn’t stop Rosie. She sent letters to all of the surrounding churches. Unlike most communities, Rosie’s had an abundance of churches nearby. So, thinking that she would surely get help from her neighborhood churches, she contacted each pastor of every church (about 20 or more) and asked for $1 dollar. To strengthen her case, she showed proof that the community group was operating with a 501(c)3, under the  umbrella of the Neighborhood Organization at that time. In the end, not one church responded to their request for help, not even the churches located on the same city block as the garden.

Determined to succeed, Rosie turned next to their city Alderwoman, Marlene Davis, for financial help. After many late night emails, early morning emails and phone calls from Rosie to the Alderwoman, the answer was still “we don’t have any money right now, but we’ll work on it.” So Rosie kept at it. She and her neighbors were challenged with so many obstacles and stumbling blocks while starting their garden: no money, no tools, no seeds, no lumber for raised beds, and even worse – no water. The community had to run water from across the street to garden the few plants they had. Any “no” you can think of, Rosie and her neighbors heard it.

One day, Rosie heard about a small grant being offered by Operation Bright Side (OBS). She worked with Mary Lou Green (of OBS) to apply, and they got the grant! Now, the garden could really get started, and it did! Rosie and her neighbors purchased gardening tools and flower bulbs to start beautifying the space. A local lumber company in the neighborhood agreed to sell them $435 dollars worth of lumber for $130, and even when the gardeners couldn’t pay the bill, he brought the lumber anyway, cut and ready to build 19 raised garden beds! And through it all, Rosie kept emailing her Alderwoman, keeping her up to date on the obstacles and successes of the neighborhood gardeners. The Alderwoman listened, and rewarded their persistence by approving funding not only for the one lot Rosie and her neighbors had begun gardening on, but also to expand the space onto another six lots on the same block!

Rosie & friends at Fresh Starts Community Garden in 2016

Over time, Rosie and her neighbors have worked hard and worked magic in their new garden: The Fresh Starts Community Garden. They transformed it from a wasteland of trash, weeds, tall grasses and drug needles to being awarded the Best Community Hang-Out Garden by Gateway Greening. Today, they are blessed with great local support and even volunteer help from all over the country. Next year, they’ll celebrate the gardens 9th birthday! Where has the time gone?

Story by Rosie Willis – Fresh Starts Community Garden Leader

Volunteer Impact in STL

AMEN Mission group volunteering at The Gateway Greening Urban Farm

Thanks to our Volunteers! We’ve had a successful summer!

Summer is nearly over, but that’s okay because it has been a successful one thanks to all of our generous volunteers! As of August 13th, we’ve had the pleasure of working with 2582 group volunteers and 152 individual volunteers in 2016. That makes a total of over 11,900 volunteer service hours supporting St. Louis Garden projects! This diverse volunteer core represents the educational, corporate, faith-based, non-profit sectors and more! Thank you for serving your community. We’d like to highlight a few groups to showcase their impact at Gateway Greening and across St. Louis neighborhoods. 

AMEN at The Gateway Greening Urban Farm.

YouthWorks on the Farm

AMEN St. Louis embraces the neighborhood around them by providing mission opportunities with local organizations. AMEN volunteers have spent time just about everywhere for Gateway Greening. From Gateway Greening’s Urban Farm to several of the community gardens, AMEN St. Louis’ work with us is greatly appreciated.


“AMEN St. Louis is a ministry of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church on the south side of St. Louis City. We host youth, adult and intergenerational mission teams from around the country. Part of our mission is to provide volunteers to various non-profits, ministries and missions throughout the St. Louis area. A week would not be complete without a day spent at a Gateway Greening Community Garden or the City Seeds Urban Farm. Our groups enjoy a bit of St. Louis summer weather while building relationships with community volunteers, Gateway Greening Staff, and each other. Helping to grow healthy food for the St. Louis community is an added bonus. We appreciate the partnership we’ve developed with Gateway Greening. ” – Donna Cook

Volunteer Day at Clay Elementary School Garden

Rise STL, BAMSL, an LinkStL volunteering at Clay Elementary School
On July 16th, Rise STL’s Rise Young Professionals Board, The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis Young Lawyers Association, and LinkStL came to help at Clay Elementary’s Cougar School Garden in Hyde Park. Through their help, the Cougar School Garden has been revitalized and will continue to be a source of learning for all children in the community! We reached out to one these amazing organizations to hear what they had to say about volunteering:

“The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis (BAMSL) has a proud tradition of community engagement and service to others, and the community gardening and engagement initiative at Clay Elementary is the latest example of the organization’s ongoing commitment. BAMSL members were honored to partner with the Young Professionals Board of Rise Saint Louis, Gateway Greening, and Link St. Louis, Inc. on this important community gardening project. This volunteer project not only allowed us to care for the Clay Elementary Cougar Community Garden while the students were away on summer break, but it also introduced many volunteers to a part of Saint Louis that they had only driven past. Working with these wonderful organizations – and engaging with community members – reminded us of an important truth: that we are all in this together. BAMSL hopes to continue its work with these partners on significant community engagement projects going forward.

Metro High School at Bell Garden

Metro High School Students volunteering at Bell Demonstration Garden
Bell Demonstration and Community Garden had seven Metro High School students volunteer recently. We spoke with a couple of those students and asked how they became involved.


Ella Catherine said, “I heard it through a friend who also made their school a friend of Gateway Greening [Volunteer Group].”


Sasha Mothershead heard through her environmental club and from Ella Catherine.


These students, all upperclassmen, are all either involved in gardening, agriculture, or conservation and it doesn’t just end there. On top of volunteering Saturdays with Gateway Greening, each, in their various spare time, are either on debate team, running for their cross country team, involved with the school newspaper, taking advanced courses through the International Baccalaureate Program, and continuing to dedicate volunteer hours to other great organizations.

A great take away from the day was that they made friends with some of the Bell Community gardeners who gave the students tomatoes and sweet potatoes.  Sasha said, “Being able to work with the people you’re helping is also cool.”

Individual Spotlight: Susan Baron


Total Lifetime Volunteer Hours with Gateway Greening: 200 hrs!

Susan Baron is a committed volunteer at Gateway Greening’s Bell Demonstration Garden! While living in New Hampshire, Susan had been involved with a community garden project, but when she moved she knew she wanted to continue to support that type of work here in St. Louis. Susan looked online and found Gateway Greening! We got in touch with Susan and asked her about her volunteer experience with our organization.


“Being a volunteer for Gateway Greening means getting up early on Saturdays, finding calm in weeding and picking bugs off of brassicas, experimenting with new ways to do things, being able to talk vegetable gardening with friends and coworkers, and having a good supply of Gateway Greening grocery bags, garden gloves, and t-shirts. I love having a place to go where I can watch the progress of the plants and be a part of a community of people tending a patch of ground.”


She also stated: “I think my favorite moments have been conversing with other volunteers while tending the garden. Having a common (and somewhat tedious) task seems to set the stage for conversations that take a little more time and go a little deeper than most daily conversations.


Also, sometimes I look up from my task–whatever it is–and realize I’m really happy. Sometimes the people and plants and weather all combine in a way that reminds me of all the beauty and goodness in the world.”