Twenty-some years ago, fresh out of college with a horticulture degree in-hand, I started teaching adult education classes at a local botanic garden. For many years, I taught a class called Preparing Your Garden for the Winter. It was all about how to clean up the garden every fall. I would show slides (remember those?) of how well-kept gardens should look in January. In the images, every plant was cut to the nub, except for the ornamental grasses and butterfly bushes, and the whole garden was snug under a thick layer of mushroom soil mulch. The roses were neatly trimmed to two feet and wrapped in a blanket of burlap, folded and stapled closed to keep them protected from freezing winds. There was nary a fallen leaf in sight; everything was raked up and hauled off.
You see, that’s how we gardeners used to roll in the early ’90s, before we knew better. Before we knew all the reasons NOT to clean up the garden. We’d cut everything down and perform a big, end-of-the-season gardening clean up until there was no shred of nature left behind. We’d turn the place into a tidied, controlled, and only slightly dirtier version of our living room. Everything was tucked and trimmed and in its place. Most of us weren’t interested in supporting wildlife much beyond hanging up a bird feeder, and the phrase “wildlife habitat” was only used in places like zoos and national parks.
Unfortunately, many gardeners still think of this kind of hack-it-all-down and rake-it-all-up gardening clean up as good gardening, but in case you haven’t already noticed, I’m here to tell you times have changed. Preparing Your Garden for the Winter is a completely different class these days. We now understand how our yards can become havens for creatures, large and small, depending on what we plant in them and how we tend to our cultivated spaces. Thanks to books like Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home, we now know how important native plants are for insects, birds, amphibians, and even people. Our gardens play an important role in supporting wildlife and what we do in them every autumn can either enhance or inhibit that role.
To that end, I offer you these six important reasons NOT to clean up the garden in the fall.
1. The Native Bees:
Many of North America’s 3500-plus species of native bees need a place to spend the winter that’s protected from cold and predators. They may hunker down under a piece of peeling tree bark, or they may stay tucked away in the hollow stem of a bee balm plant or an ornamental grass. Some spend the winter as an egg or larvae in a burrow in the ground.
All native bees are important pollinators, and when we remove every last overwintering site by cutting everything down and completely cleaning up the garden, we’re doing ourselves no favor. We need these bees, and our gardens can provide them with much-needed winter habitat.
Related post: Supporting native bees
2. The Butterflies:
While the monarch flies south to overwinter in Mexico, most other butterflies stay put and take shelter somewhere dry and safe until spring. Some butterflies, like the mourning cloak, comma, question mark, and Milbert’s tortoise shell, overwinter as adults. They nestle into rock fissures, under tree bark, or in leaf litter until the days grow longer again and spring arrives. Butterflies that overwinter in a chrysalis include the swallowtail family, the cabbage whites and the sulphurs. Many of these chrysalises can be found either hanging from dead plant stems or tucked into the soil or leaf litter. You can guess what a fall gardening clean up does to them.
And still other butterfly species, such as the red-spotted purple, the viceroy, and the meadow fritillary, spend the winter as a caterpillar rolled into a fallen leaf or inside the seed pod of a host plant. If we cut down and clean up the garden, we are quite possibly eliminating overwintering sites for many of these beautiful pollinators (and perhaps even eliminating the insects themselves!). Another excellent way you can help butterflies is to build a caterpillar garden for them; here’s how. Declining butterfly populations are one of the best reasons not to clean up the garden.
3. The Ladybugs:
North America is home to over 400 different ladybug species, many of which are not red with black polka-dots. While the introduced Asian multicolored ladybug comes into our homes for the winter and becomes quite a nuisance, none of our native ladybug species have any interest in spending the winter inside of your house. Most of them enter the insect world’s version of hibernation soon after the temperatures drop and spend the colder months tucked under a pile of leaves, nestled at the base of a plant, or hidden under a rock. Most overwinter in groups of anywhere from a few individuals to thousands of adults. Ladybugs are notorious pest eaters, each one consuming dozens of soft-bodied pest insects and insect eggs every day. Leaving the garden intact for the winter means you’ll get a jump start on controlling pests in the spring. Skipping a fall gardening clean up is one important way to help these beneficial insects.
Related post: Lost ladybugs
4. The Birds:
Insect-eating birds, like chickadees, wrens, titmice, nuthatches, pheobes, and bluebirds, are very welcome in the garden because they consume thousands of caterpillars and other pest insects as they raise their young every gardening season. Not cleaning up the garden means there will be more protein-rich insects available to them during the coldest part of the year. These birds are quite good at gleaning “hibernating” insects off of dead plant stems and branches, and out of leaf litter. The more insect-nurturing habitat you have, the greater the bird population will be. Your feathered friends will also appreciate feasting on the seeds and berries they can collect from intact perennial, annual, and shrub stems. Song birds are one of the best reasons skip the garden clean up!
5. The Predatory Insects:
Ladybugs aren’t the only predatory insects who spend the winter in an intact garden. Assassin bugs, lacewings, big-eyed bugs, minute pirate bugs, damsel bugs, ground beetles, and scores of other pest-munching predatory insects spend the winter “sleeping” in your garden as either adults, eggs, or pupae. They’re one of the best reasons not to clean up the garden in the fall because they help you control pests. To have a balanced population of these predatory insects, you have to have winter habitat; when spring arrives, they’ll be better able to keep early-emerging pests in check if they’ve spent the winter on-site, instead of over in the neighbor’s yard.
Related post: The best plants for beneficial insects
6. The People:
If the previous five reasons aren’t enough to inspire you to hold off on cleaning up the garden, I’ll add one final reason to the list: You. There is so much beauty to be found in a winter garden. Snow resting on dried seed pods, berries clinging to bare branches, goldfinches flitting around spent sunflowers, juncos hopping beneath old goldenrod fronds, frost kissing the autumn leaves collected at the base of a plant, and ice collected on blades of ornamental grasses. At first, you might not consider yourself to be one of the reasons not to clean up the garden, but winter is a lovely time out there, if you let it be so.
Delaying your garden’s clean up until the spring is a boon for all the creatures living there. Instead of heading out to the garden with a pair of pruning shears and a rake this fall, wait until the spring temperatures are in the 50s for at least 7 consecutive days. By then, all the critters living there will be emerging from their long winter nap. And even if they haven’t managed to get out of bed by the time you head out to the garden, most of them will still manage to find their way out of a loosely layered compost pile before it begins to decompose. Do Mother Nature a big favor and save your garden clean up until the spring. And, when spring does arrive, please use these pollinator-friendly tips for cleaning up the garden the right way.
To learn more about how to encourage beneficial insects in your garden, please read the following articles:
- Tachinid flies
- Black and yellow garden spiders
- 5 surprising facts you don’t know about ladybugs
- Spring garden clean up done right
Tell us how you enjoy your garden during the winter months.
Jen Y says
In the past 25 yrs I’ve grown anything I rarely clean it up for winter. I used to when I was young but the busy seasons of raising children & caring for aging parents I chose to let it go for more important things. i began to notice how much I loved my messy winter garden for all the reasons you listed! For years my garden friends would look at me & my garden with confusions as I shared the messiness with them. But my garden was the one alive all winter with birds – whether I fill the feeders or not. Everything from tiny sparrows to flickers, hawks & even eagles. I do live in a rural area to my advantage both in the wild life & in no rules from the neighbors on messy yards.
Now I do choose one garden bed each winter to clean out so that I can replenish soil, gain control of weeds & pests or rearrange at my leisure. With over 5 acres one little bed being cleaned out doesn’t seem to hurt the insect population too much & my beds do much better the following year with an occasional clean up.
I think rotating the clean up just as we rotate crops is a good way to go. It’s much easier on my back, I have much happier wildlife & beautiful thriving plants as a result!
Lynne Favreau says
Jen Y, you are a genius, rotating the beds you clean-up is so sensible. I too stopped cleaning the beds when my girls were small and life became hectic.
Jessica, though most of it got buried this past winter, there is usually enough shrubbery and tall grasses to make it interesting through our snowy northeast winter. Is there anything you think that shouldn’t be left to overwinter?
Jessica Walliser says
The only plants I regularly cut back every year are my bearded iris because the iris borers overwinter in/on the foliage. Everything else is left standing. Some folks recommend cutting back and removing any foliage that was diseased, such as monarda with powdery mildew or peonies with botrytis. You can do this, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee you won’t have the same fungal issue in subsequent years. Most fungal issues are either wind-borne or soil-borne so cutting back foliage isn’t a cure-all for them.
Barbara Bellehumeur says
The Tiger Grass I planted has finally taken shape and spread providing a great along the foundation cover. Small birds and chipmunks love to settle in there all year long. Leaving it to winter over is good. The rock garden in summer is lovely, but in snow fall it is beautiful.
Jo Anne says
Recently I sawd a little red squirrel tumble off the roof of our 2-storey into my front perennial bed. Two of them were roaring around up there & I guess he didn’t stop. He landed in Hosta & Ligularia & lived to roar around up there again.
I love watching the winter birds flitting from the grasses and coneflowers foraging for seeds. I never clean my gardens until Spring. It may not look the best, but the wildlife certainly appreciates my lack of fall housekeeping:)
Phyllis Gricus says
Excellant blog-post, Jessica! I’m in complete agreement with your approach as a way to encourage the natural process in our backyards.
I would also add that using shredded leaves as mulch on your garden beds will feed earthworms, beneficial microbes and the soil. (Walnut leaves are best composted before using because of they contain a substance that can inhibit plant growth.)
I use a mulching mower or leaf blower with vacuum/mulching feature to shred them. What doesn’t decompose over winter can be cleaned up in spring (if you want) and the volume of leaves will be greatly reduced.
Helen Opie says
I used to leave most of my garden until spring, but here it is nearly under water in early spring and not dried enough to dig out roots of invasive perennial weeds (sedge, bindweed, sumac from next door, wild roses, other brambles, Virginia creeper, knotweed, goutweed, and a little witchgrass) until late June, so I can only to do this in late fall before the ground freezes. I can usually leave some beds untouched because they are not so badly invaded. I feel bad about doing this, but cannot figure out a better way and still be able to plant early veggies before it becomes too hot for them. An?y suggestions? Especially for dealing with sedge, sumac, and brambles?
Rosie Beuthien says
Veggie beds are a different matter than ornamental gardens. The article (and my own habits) refer to ornamental beds. I’d say it makes sense to clean the veggie beds.
While some species of insects do migrate for the winter, others will burrow or find places to stay warm. Leaving your garden for those that do stay is definitely a nice gesture. Thanks for sharing!
I’m concerned with the infestation of squash beetles aphids and stinkbugs that are also waiting in anticipation for next years crop…isn’t burning the best way to control them?
Jessica Walliser says
Squash bugs overwinter as adults. They typically leave the plants to nestle under leaf litter and mulch. Aphids can overwinter as either adults or eggs. And how stinkbugs overwinter depends on the species. The trick is to aim for a balance, especially in the vegetable garden where pests can have a real economical impact. I’d suggest you get rid of any plants you know were heavily infested, but leave any “clean” plants intact because when you get rid of debris, you’re also getting rid of overwintering sites for the predatory beneficial insects that naturally help keep these common pests in check. You want the beneficials to stay in the garden so that you have a natural checks-and-balances system already in place if/when any pest insects survive the winter, too. It’s all about having a good balance.
The leaves of native trees, shrubs and perennials are adapted to not only to harbor native insects but also add nutrients to the soil. This means each plant makes it’s own fertilizer.
Nicole Watkins Campbell says
Thanks for all of this great information. I live in a city, and am thinking about leaving leaves on the ornamental beds, but not the grass. We have a Norway map,e hanging over our yard, and the leaves have that black spot. Should I clean them all up as best I can, or can I leave them on the beds?
Rebecca Bisbee says
The only way to get rid of Maple black spot disease is to get rid of ALL the fallen leaves. If you leave them on the ground, the spores will come out in the spring and reinfect the emerging leaves.
Great article! All of this totally makes sense as it will not ruin any of the natural balance that occurs in a garden during the fall season. Thank you for sharing this valuable information.
Bristol Gardener says
These tips are all really legit and useful. Frankly I too have always though cleaning up your garden for the winter is not all that good. The beneficial insects suffer the most in one such cleaning and I have always tried to attract them to my garden.
Does this apply to vegetable gardens as well?
Jessica Walliser says
This is a really good question, Stev. And my answer is “it depends.” If you had a known pest issue, then you’d do best to pull the pest-infested veggie plants out of the garden in the fall, to prevent any of those pests or their eggs from overwintering in the garden. Same goes for any plants that were plagued by a fungal disease, like powdery mildew or blight. The veggie garden is really a different space, so I leave any plants that were healthy and fairly pest-free, but remove any that were in poor health. BUT, I always let all my herbs stand for the winter in the vegetable garden. I grow many herbs in a central island in my vegetable garden and those are left to stand through the winter for all of the reasons mentioned in this article. Thanks for the great question.
Does this advice though apply in areas where the winters are mild and rather then the ground freezing and staying that way, it rains constantly and everything gets soaked. You can guess probably that I live on the We(s)t Coast of Canada.
If I leave everything on the ground including fallen leaves it turns into a wet slimy mess and harbours slugs and snails. So I do cleanup plants that die down in winter.
If I leave certain seed heads I will end up with those seeds spreading everywhere in the garden.
Jessica Walliser says
Yes; the advice applies for all climates. We have a lot of moisture in the winter here, too, and though the fallen leaves and stems that remain in my perennial beds do turn slimy and sometimes harbor slugs, they also harbor ground beetles, firefly larvae, and lots of other good bugs that eat those slugs (Oregon State University has done some excellent research on creating habitat for ground beetles). Leaving winter habitat in place will encourage more good bugs than bad ones, in turn keeping things in balance. That’s what it’s all about; bringing balance back to the garden. I know it’s a complete about-face from what horticulturists like me have taught for many years, but it’s a shift that needs to happen if we want our gardens to be havens for pollinators, beneficial insects, birds, and other species of wildlife. As for your comment on self-seeding plants, yes, if you have a plant species that is a prolific self-seeder, then you’ll probably want to deadhead it before it drops seeds to keep the plant from becoming invasive. In my own garden this isn’t an issue because I like for most of my plants to self-sow, but if you don’t, simply deadhead them but leave the stems standing.
In addition to what not to do, here are several things you should do. Clean up all leftover debris from squash. Especially if you are subject to squash borers. I find tree trimmings in the neighborhood. If big enough, I collect it for firewood. Small tinder I stack at the end of my woodpile as a brush pile. Small birds love this shelter. I cover it with a single layer of burlap, then put 2 or 3 more branches on top to keep it from blowing away. The open space below the burlap is free of snow. Yard leaves are raked onto the garden, and limed. They will not be turned with the soil until spring. The only thing I do with flower gardens is to plant new bulbs in the fall.
Barbara Radisavljevic says
This post has relieved a lot of my anxiety. My gardener just dropped me from his route because of health issues forcing him to cut back. Since my lawn is in transition, there’s almost nothing there to grow. I’ve only watered my ornamental beds during this hot summer. My plan is to cut back any branches on my shrubs that will grow too big to prune if I don’t cut them back. They will get too big to handle if I leave them until spring.I won’t feel so guilty now about leaving leaves on the ground. The biggest problem I have with not cleaning up is all the unwanted trees that spout invisibly from my Goldenrain Tree and the oak across the street. But they manage even when I have tried to clean them up.
Barbara, I planted a baby Golden Rain Tree this year. Having read a bit about it after planting, I am wondering if I want to dig it up. Are you happy with yours? It sounds like the sprouts are a nuisance?
Otherwise, I am completely on board with the suggestions in this post! Thank you Jessica for educating me with so many good reasons to wait until spring to tidy. In particular I have some overgrown Forsythia bushes – moved in last October, and pruned just a bit this year, but planning a big clean-up at the end of winter. Wondering if it is best to wait until then for that?
I feel i have to clean up in autumn. Our winters can get very cold here -50 below with lots of snow, even though spring is in march sometimes we have to wait some years till may for it all to melt and it is very wet/mucky. but warm enough to sprout the plants and when they start growing the old is still dried up on top of the new foliage the dried up leaves doesn’t look so nice on the day lilies. iris, hostas ect. I did try leaving it it a few years but it was triple the work to get it cleaned up. Also on the leafs that were left on top of the grass over winter there was a white mold that grew.
I’m really new to gardening, so this was quite interesting. I feel bad when I leave the garden looking messy in fall. Thanks for offering these insights, though!
Mary S. Reed says
I have milkweed for the butterflies, but don’t want it to reseed all over the yard. Is it ok to cut down the dead stalks before the seed heads pop? Or does something eat the seeds or overwinter in the plants?
Jessica Walliser says
Hi Mary. Rather than cutting down the entire stalk, I would just snip off the seed pods if you don’t want the plant to reseed in your garden. You may find a fellow gardener interested in growing milkweed whom you could pass the seeds along to.
Karen Kelleher says
The problem is that professional yard gardeners do not get paid to NOT do fall cleanup.
You will never convince them of this unfortunately.
Which is why I don’t have one outside of someone who mows the grass. Hire one for big jobs and not easier routine care.
I love this! I wish every gardener would take the time to read this as well as some others. I cannot express it enough to my community how important all 6 reasons are to sustain the life force of every living thing and Mother Earth as a whole. Thank You for such a realistic and well written article!
Jessica Walliser says
Thank you, Pauline. 🙂
Great! I can relax this fall cleaning season:-) So just cleaned up some aphids
covered brussel sprouts and Kohlrabis which were frosted last week:-(
My question is how to clean / kill those aphids dropped into the soil???
Do their eggs survive in the soil during winter?
I’m so glad to find your site. Thank you
Jessica Walliser says
You don’t have to worry about those aphids. The spiders, big eyed bugs, damsel bugs, ground beetles, and other beneficial insects will find and eat them long before they can find their way back to your plants. Their eggs can survive tucked into dead plant stems, but they’ll likely fall prey to beneficials in the soil. I wouldn’t worry a bit about them, especially if you have lots of early flowering plants around to support beneficials in the early spring.
Hello! Fantastic article, and as a horticulturist, I heartily concur. I am the co-owner of a sustainable gardening/landscaping business and this is our first year altering our fall cleanups to mostly consist of cutting back spent perennials with minimal wildlife value in the winter, shredding lawn leaves and blowing them onto the existing leaves in the garden beds to provide habitat and eventual compost.
Here is my concern though, which no one seems to be addressing: does this not also increase habitat for ticks to an astronomical degree? I live in New England where Lyme has become an epidemic and it feels irresponsible for us to potentially be increasing the incidence of this devastating disease while also helping thousands of other species.
Jessica Walliser says
Interesting thought, Adam. I haven’t seen any research that points to this contributing to an increase in tick numbers. Leaving the debris also shelters and promotes the beneficial insects, birds, salamanders, and other wildlife that regularly feeds on ticks, too, thereby likely increasing the amount of tick predation that takes place in the garden. We have a lot of ticks here in PA as well, and I’ve not noticed an increase in ticks since I stopped cleaning up my gardens in the fall about 8 years ago.
Sam Jewel says
thanks for this
Love this! It’s so much easier to leave things in the fall and it’s nice to not have bare beds.
I do have a question related to veg gardening specifically. I like to prepare most of my veg beds (that aren’t growing over winter) in the fall with compost and straw mulch, after cleaning out the previous crops, so they are ready for early spring planting — i.e. I don’t have to disturb the wet soil to get a jump on the season, and the compost and/or manure can incorporate over the winter. (Plus I can split up the work, and not carry loads of heavy, frozen wet compost in spring) I do leave some of the beds stand like late season flowers, and some are growing all season under cover.
Any tips for balancing bed prep with not cleaning up? Should I just add the compost on top of existing debris?
Jessica Walliser says
You could certainly put compost on top of the debris. Another option is to plant a cover crop (I like oats because they are winter killed).
Love this article. Thank you. There was much I did not know.
Beverly Lehman says
Excellent information. I am a Penn State Master Gardener and will be using the topic of “Our Garden Allies; Where will they sleep and what will they eat?” when teaching our Youth Summer Garden Camp in August. Today’s children are the gardeners of tomorrow. Our Pollinator Friendly Certified Garden that is not cleaned up until spring stands at the County Extension Office as an example.