Reasons NOT to Clean Up Your Garden Before Winter

— Written By Kate Holt
male goldfinch

Terry Spivey, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

The cool, crisp days of fall make it a great time to be out in the garden. Most of us will stay busy weeding, planting and cleaning up. After the first frost, we jump in cutting back dead plant material, raking leaves and generally tidying up. While I encourage you to keep up with the weeding and planting, it may be time to rethink how you clean up the garden for winter.

Did you know that many native bee and butterfly species overwinter in debris in the garden? Many gardeners are choosing their plants to actively draw bees and butterflies in to the landscape. This is great but doesn’t go far enough if your garden clean up unintentionally removes their overwintering habitat or even the creatures themselves. Some native bees nest in the ground but many rely on the hollow stems of grasses and other plants for their winter cover. Butterfly species has different strategies – overwintering as adults hiding in the leaf litter, chrysalis attached to dead plant stems or in the leaf litter, or as caterpillars rolled inside a leaf or the seed pod of the host plant. In additional to the bees and butterflies, many beneficial insects like ladybeetles, lacewings and ground beetles also overwinter in the garden as adults or eggs. Overzealous fall cleanup can remove these insects from the landscape. Leaving ornamental plants and their leaf litter in place through the spring allows these species to carry out their lifecycle within the garden. Insects aren’t the only ones that benefit from reduced garden cleanup. The birds appreciate it as well. The seeds and berries left on plants provide important food sources during the winter months while the debris, including ornamental grasses and the dead stems of perennials, provide cover for birds to hide in. Many song birds also eat insects and will pick through the plant debris and leaf litter to find protein-rich insects to help carry them through the winter.

When spring rolls around, save your clean up efforts until just before new growth starts. Some insects will emerge before clean up occurs. To give insects that emerge later the best chance, lay the debris somewhere that the insects can emerge before the plants decay entirely. Debris can be laid or placed in bundles along the edge of a wood or fenceline or you can pile them loosely so the insects can emerge. Later in the summer, the residues can be composted.

Now every rule has an exception. In the case of plants that have a pest insect or disease problem, go ahead and clean up after the first frost. Remove the affected leaves and plant material from the garden to head off recurrence next season.

Enjoy these beautiful fall days, and don’t feel guilty about relaxing and saving your garden cleanup for spring.