Spring garden clean up done RIGHT

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Now that spring is on our doorstep, many of us are getting anxious to head out to the garden and clean things up. I know I am. We see all the dead ornamental grass stalks, the spent perennial stems, and the autumn leaves collected in our gardens and they give us spring fever. We want to bolt outside and spring clean the garden as soon as we can because we know that as the days get warmer, there will be more and more gardening chores to do. But, don’t head out with your favorite clippers and rake just yet! There’s a right way and a wrong way to do a spring garden clean up. 

You may recall that last fall I wrote a post on all the reasons why you shouldn’t do a fall garden clean up. The post encouraged you to let your garden stand all winter in order to provide habitat for many of the beneficial insects and other creatures living in it. The post went viral (!!!). So now, spring has arrived, and if you didn’t do a fall garden clean up as I recommended in that post, you now have a big spring garden clean up facing you. Along the same vein as my fall post, I’d like to now offer you some spring garden clean up tips that encourage a similar level of habitat preservation for beneficial insects.

How to do a spring garden clean up the RIGHT way:

Step 1: Cut, bundle, and tie.

In early spring, many insects are still in diapause (a physiological state akin to hibernation). In other words, they’re still sleeping. Sometimes they wake up because the weather warms and sometimes they wake up because the day-length increases. Lots of beneficial insects, including pollinators like tiny native bees and pest-munching predators like syrphid flies, lacewings, and parasitic wasps, spend the winter hunkered down in hollow plant stems either as adults or pupae. Cutting down the dead plant stems too early in the spring will disturb them before they have a chance to emerge. Wait as long as you can to do your spring garden clean up. Ideally, you should wait until the daytime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees F for at least 7 consecutive days. But, that being said, I’m well aware that gardeners like to cut down old plant stems before new growth starts, so as an alternative to delaying your spring garden clean up, here are two other options:

  • Toss cut perennial and woody plant stems onto the compost pile very, very loosely, or spread them out at the edge of the woods. Many of the insects taking shelter inside the plant stems will still be able to emerge when the time is right. When you cut off the plants, leave about 8 inches of stubble behind. These hollow stems will serve as overwintering sites for future generations of insects and the new growth will soon hide them.
  • Another option (and the one I prefer) is to take the cut stems and gather them into small bundles of a few dozen stems each. Tie the bundles together with a piece of jute twine and hang them on a fence or lean them against a tree on an angle. Again, the insects sheltering inside of them will emerge when they’re ready. An added bonus of this method: More insects, especially native bees, will move in to the stems and possibly use them as brood chambers all summer long.
leaf cutter bee, spring garden clean up

Some species of native pollinators, like this docile leaf cutter bee, overwinter in hollow plant stems.

Related post: Supporting native bees

Step 2: Do a CAREFUL leaf clean up

Again, waiting as long as possible to rake leaves out of perennial beds is the best idea. Hold off on your spring garden clean up until daytime temperatures consistently reach the 50s, if possible. Scores of beneficial insects – ladybugs, assassin bugs, and damsel bugs, for example – hunker down for the winter in leaf litter as adults. Others do so as eggs or pupae. And, adult butterflies, such as morning cloaks, question marks, and commas, nestle into leaf litter for the winter. Luna moths spend the winter in cocoons that look just like a crinkled brown leaf. As you clean up your leaves keep a sharp eye out for these insects and do your best not to disturb them.

ladybug, spring garden clean up

The pink spotted ladybug (Coleomegilla maculata) is one of several ladybug species that overwinter in leaf litter.

Step 3: Don’t mulch… yet! 

There are also many beneficial insects and pollinators who overwinter in soil burrows as either eggs, pupae, or adults. Some examples include the hummingbird clearwing moth, soldier beetles, and many native bees. Covering the ground with a layer of mulch too early in the spring may block their emergence. Hold off on mulching chores until the soil dries out a little and the weather warms.

Related post: 5 late-blooming pollinator friendly plants

Step 4: Prune with great care

If part of your spring garden clean up involves pruning back woody perennials or shrubs, keep a sharp eye out for cocoons and chrysalises. Some of our most beautiful moths and butterflies spend the winter in a delicate cocoon dangling from a branch, including the swallowtails (see feature photo), the sulfurs, and spring azures. Allow any branches with a cocoon or chrysalis present to stay intact. You can always cut them back later in the season.

Related post: Flowers that attract butterflies: It’s not just about the grown-ups

silk moth cocoon

I found this silk moth cocoon overwintering on a branch of my buttonbush.

A proper spring garden clean up should NOT be a destructive process. By taking your time and doing it right, you and your garden can reap the many benefits of a healthy population of pest-munching beneficial insects and pollinators.Beneficial Insect book

Do you have any other tips for conducting an insect-friendly spring garden clean up? Share them with us in the comment section below. 

Pin it! This spring garden clean up is perfect for encouraging bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects in the garden.

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37 Responses to Spring garden clean up done RIGHT

  1. Linda says:

    Awesome article! Thank you for making us more conscious of our environment!

  2. Hannah says:

    Thanks for the timely post! Always good to keep the critters in mind.

  3. Emma says:

    Brilliant post – shared with all my friends.

  4. Simba says:

    Another thought – cut higher. Leaving 12-18″ of stem will often preserve stem-nesting critters but still give a tidy garden appearance.

  5. Maria C says:

    Thanks, Jess. I’ve always wondered about the right time to do this part.

  6. I am fortunate to have an area across the street where there is room under some shrubs to put the stems and grasses I cut back each spring. There are several spaces, so the piles don’t get high enough to get hot. I have also been cutting a bit higher on some of the stems.

    I am in SE Nebraska, and have taken the top layer of leaves from our curb beds, and cut back the plants in our curb area. I still left some of the plant that had seedheads the birds may still be eating from. We have pasque flowers blooming now!

  7. Eileen says:

    Good post. But why take the leaves away at all? They serve to protect the soil and soil-dwelling organisms, provide “bird food,” and eventually become soil. Also, mulch is WAY overdone: 70% of native bees nest in the ground (they actually burrow into earth like ants do). Mulching everywhere prevents them from getting through layers of mulch to reach soil or may destroy their nests if they’re already nesting), so it’s best to leave some bare soil.

  8. Stephanie W says:

    Thank you for this article! I would also say keep leaves in the bed–keeps nutrition in your bed, feeds soil organisms which feeds the plants and creates better soil conditions. In the spring, I simply move the leaves off the tops of plants if they have gotten too think. Many plants are able to push up through the leaves, and the leaves settle nicely around the plant. Here’s a pic of tiny carpenter bees overwintering I had discovered when I accidentally stepped on a stem, and it broke open. I put them in a very protected area and loosely layered leaves/stems over them and am hoping they survive, but it really shows that these animals need a place to wait out winter.

  9. Reia says:

    I save all my leaves in the fall, shred them, and apply thickly as a natural mulch in all gardens. It looks lovely and makes it so you don’t have to take up your leaves in the spring. Bugs can hibernate safe and sound!

    • Annie P. says:

      Dear Reia,
      I know it is difficult NOT to fall clean up ‘cuz it feels great to have your garden all tucked in and neat for the winter, but what you are doing is chopping up the overwintering insects, moth and butterfly eggs or pupae, etc. If we chop leaves in the fall instead of waiting until late spring when it’s warm enough for ALL the critters to have come out, we will have no moths or butterflies, nor will the baby birds have caterpillars to eat. There is tremendous loss of habitat and we are contributing to it by over-zealous tidying in addition to the invasive plants along the roads and in other unattended areas, exotic non-natives in our gardens which native insects can’t eat, plus overabundant deer in the forest destroying the understory that insects have plummeted 45% in the last 30 years. If we keep disposing our leaves and removing them from their host trees and cutting back perennials in fall, we are breaking the circle of life and making our ecosystem unhealthy. With the loss of insects we may find ourselves in the future unable to pollinate our crops, a very scary possibility.

  10. Nosila says:

    Great article. I sent to my gardening friends, AND to the guy who does some yard work for me. We definitely need to educate the professionals!

  11. Patricia says:

    Here’s a story offerred for next spring’s readers. About 12 early-springs ago I decided to get a jump start on the vegi garden, pulling the previous year’s plant remains and putting them in the compost pile, etc. As I turned the soil to incorporate last years mulch into the beds, using a pitchfork, it was maybe my 3rd plunge into the soil when I ran into a large frog buried in the soil, still hibernating. Thinking I had hurt him I ran into the house to get a box to put him in and hoped to nurse him back to health; when I’d returned he was gone, and hopefully hadn’t been hurt too badly. Obviously a frog isn’t a pollinator, but be careful out there folks! All around us are worlds of living beings who make our lives possible; we need to protect them!

  12. Kathy says:

    Thank you for letting take a long winter’s nap without guilt. I’ll get to the gardening in the spring.

  13. Ella says:

    I’ve read this article after reading about leaving the leaves. Thank you for all the information on WHEN to clean up the leaves, etc. Several articles out there about not raking in the fall, and none of them (but for this one) said when to do the actual raking and in what manner. And a lot of “Rake or you’ll kill the grass!” comments, that sent me on another wild goose chase.. only to find there are as many opposing opinions on that as there are in favor. Again, thank you for the details. Currently our lawn is buried in leaves. Hoping we’ll have a lawn come spring. ;p For now, we have tons of birds and wildlife out there. I love living on a house on a bluff.

  14. Keith says:

    Good article! I’ve heard about preserving cover for native animals but have never heard much about preserving cover and habitat for beneficial insects. One question that came to mind was, if we preserve habitat for beneficial insects, might we also be helping along some of the pests as well? I’d still lean to preserving habitat regardless since the predator bugs would probably mitigate any pest presence

    • HI Keith – Great question. Yes, sometimes leaving plant debris in place can shelter pest insects as well. But, in the spring, emerging beneficial insects need to eat pretty quickly after coming out of diapause (the insect version of hibernation) so when you leave overwintering habitat in place, any pests that managed to overwinter, serve as a very important early food source for the waking predatory bugs. When that early food source is present, the “good” bugs are more likely to stick around in your garden and control future pest outbreaks all season long. It’s all about bringing natural balance back to the garden. You won’t have beneficial insects if you don’t have lunch there for them, too! 🙂

  15. Charmaine says:

    If you mulch with leaves in the fall the end result is multi dimensional … no weeds in the spring and all the hibernating good insects come out when they are ready.

  16. Julie Ann Wang says:

    Do I need to clear those leaves from my native perennial garden beds? Or, can I just leave them be and put compost over them?

    • Hi Julie Ann – There’s no need to remove the leaves; just make sure piles of them are not sitting directly on the crowns of any plants as that could restrict the plant’s emergence. In my woodland gardens, I just leave the leaves alone and toss some compost on top of them. It really helps keep the weeds down, too.

  17. Repoleon says:

    Unfortunately ticks also overwinter in leaf litter so I try to find a balance between leaving some, but removing in areas that my dogs frequent. We have a huge tick/Lyme disease problem where I live.

  18. Marci Moss says:

    Great information! I am a new native gardener. I was looking all over to find out when and how to do what. I am afraid of stepping on any overwintering baby turtles or hibernating frogs both of which appear in my garden and in the grass in the spring. Then when I read about the bees in the ground and the bugs in the stems that I left standing in the fall I was afraid to cut anything in the spring. Last year I waited too long and then had a lot of dead stuff mixed in with the new growth in my sedges and grasses. So this year I will wait until we have steady 50 degree weather and hope I keep everybody safe. Thanks!

  19. Carole Mitchell says:

    What about white Pine needles?

    • They can be left in place around the base of the tree. Or you can rake them up in late spring and use them to mulch blueberries, rhododendrons, or other acid soil-loving plants.

  20. Diane Prostko says:

    I enjoy watching the birds forage for nesting material among the fall leftovers in my garden. I would love to get out there and clean up, but this alone is worth it! This was a great article. I watch for mantis casings and tie them to shrubs.

  21. Jane Russell says:

    Enjoyed the article. Wonder on your ideas about ornamental grasses? I have had Mexican feather grass in the past. I never cut it off; I just waited until it started to show green at the base and then after a good rain or watering, I would put on heavy gloves and tease the dead grass out. I see so much ornamental grass cut off that does not regrow.

    • I always cut my ornamental grasses back in the spring. I leave “stumps” about 10-12 inches tall. Since the bloom stalks of many grasses are hollow in the center, these cavities make great brood chambers for many of our smaller native bees.

  22. Nancy says:

    I have been leaving garden clean up until spring for the last few years with outstanding results. Gardens ARE beautiful in winter when you leave them be. Mother Nature doesn’t “tidy up” and neither should we.

  23. Marcia Oster says:

    Thank you! This is very helpful! I did some garden clean up already, not having read this. Will try to spread out the dead stalks in the woods so the insects can more easily emerge. Wish I had left the leaves in the garden, though!

  24. Dawn V says:

    I had previously asked a question, but perhaps it did not post properly. Do the beneficial insects winter over in rose canes? The ideal time to prune roses is much earlier, before they awake from dormancy, and the only info I can find on roses is about pests like cane borers.

    • While some beneficial insects may overwinter in hollow rose canes, it’s typically only inside of stumps left behind by the previous season’s pruning. They typically can’t get inside of fully intact stems such as those on roses, so you can safely prune roses early in the growing season without worry.

  25. Love the autumn article and this follow-up. I saw more than one chrysalis while doing some light cleaning! Question though: when is it safe to aggressively clean up? I live in N.C. Zone 6-7.

  26. Matt Mattus says:

    Hi Jessical
    SO here is my dilemma. I love the idea of protecting good pollinators and beneficial insects, naturally, but in the vegetable garden (and I garden in a old, three generation veg garden as you know) we have many non-beneficial insects as well – and most if not all of these are either managed either by insecticide (not an option) or by strategy -meaning- outsmarting them as most if not all either winter-over in garden debris or underground in plant material that is either dormant or decaying. I’m building a list of damaging insects first that are most problematic such as wireworm (that firm, 1 inch orange, segmented worm one often finds in sod or acidic soils that plagues everything from the Maine potato growers to home perennial borders with Phlox paniculata, Asters and dahlia tubers. The worms live up to three or four years before pupating but winter over in roots of weeds and garden plants that are annuals particularly brassicas. So no keeping kale over through the winter for me. The only cure according to University of Wisconson and Rutgers is to clean the garden as best as you can every fall as even insecticides work well. This same topic keeps coming up in my talks as well particualrly with cabbage root fly maggot, that the UMASS studies show now winter over as eggs or adults at the base of all brassica crops (even arugula) in late autumn in debris or soil, and emerge in their first flight around May 5th here in New England. Their recommendation is first crop rotation every 5 years (not practical for home growers with raised beds) and cleaning the garden in the fall to remove old plant material where adults and eggs winter over. This is such a destructive insect – and one with at least 7 flights throughout the summer, its this first flight that does the most damage so removing all brassicas that are dead in fall has always been my best practice. Then, there are plenty of ‘bad’lepidoptera that winter over in ornamentals (iris borer and others that lay eggs in October with bearded Iris unless the foliage is cut off). so you can see my point, right? So while I totally embrace not cleaning up my wild areas or meadow areas, when it comes to ornamentals and the veg garden – I am still struggling with this trend. I havent even mentioned viruses, fungi AND worms in mulch as we now suffer with the Japanese Jumping Worm that loves mulch and leaf litter. We avoid it by allowing the ground to go fallow for some years keeping it perfectly clean as the eggs winter over and hatch in April. I don’t know – I mean I ‘get it’, the love and ‘feel-good’ actions of not cleaning up to save some beneficial insects, but is anyone telling the whole story out there? (Don’t tell me that it’s going to be me, either! I’m only presenting both sides in my next book !!) – I just would like to see presented the entire story, which sometimes has an answer that no one wants to hear. I thought that I would raise this other side of the issue. It reminds me of one question I got at a lecture recently where a woman asked me how I could stop the caterpillars from eating her pollinator trees!

    • Hi Matt – It’s a big question, isn’t it? What’s important to realize is that all that debris not only shelters potential pests but it also shelters many species of beneficial insects that help manage those pest. When we clean up both ornamental and vegetable gardens, we’re also removing overwintering sites for beneficials like ladybugs, lacewings, syrphid flies, parasitic wasps, big eyed bugs, damsel bugs, and many more. So, if we don’t cut the garden back and clean it out, in the spring, when the pests emerge, so do the beneficials — and those beneficials have an early food source and they manage pests more effectively when they can start early in the season. Because of the biology of animals, prey insects (such as many of the herbivorous pests in our vegetable garden) always reproduce at a faster rate than the predators (such as the beneficials I listed above), so without the beneficials around early in the season to help manage them, the pests can quickly reproduce to levels that are damaging to plants. It’s all about achieving a balance. Leaving the garden stand is a first, simple step in regaining the balance between pest/prey insects and predators. It’s a subject that I dive deeply into in my book with Timber Press, Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden. You may find it a useful read if you’d like more information about how cleaning up the garden affects the natural balance (including lots of research on the subject).

  27. Ron McCracken says:

    Back-saver tip when you do your clean-up.
    Buy a ‘bedding fork’, a plastic one. Hardwares, TSC, or co-ops sell them. It looks like a shovel, but has about 15 tynes instead of a blade. Cost is $25 to $30, less on sale. Mine is a Garant, but there are other makes.
    Mine is about 20 years old now, and good as new. It is light, but far more rugged than I imagined. It has added that many years to my gardening career. One can do the same for you, I expect, and add greatly to your comfort.

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