American goldfinch perched on seedhead of purple coneflower plant.
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Why less is better when it comes to fall cleanup
September 23, 2022
Don’t be in a hurry to clean up every autumn leaf. While it’s important to clean up plant debris, we can also spare a thought for the beneficial bugs and birds who need shelter over winter. Let’s strike the right balance! Here’s how to clean up the yard and garden with wildlife in mind.
1. Clean Up Perennial Flowers
In general, considering leaving most perennials uncut through the winter. Native bee species like small carpenter, mason, and leaf-cutter bees nest in hollow stems. Many butterflies pupate and spend the winter on these plants as well. By leaving this plant material in the landscape, we can preserve these pollinating insects for next year. There’s no real need to cut back until early spring, when new growth begins to push through. If you crave tidiness, you can always leave just one area uncut.
Many perennials such as coneflowers, sedums, black-eyed Susan, Joe-Pye weed, and marigolds can be an important food source for seed eating birds, like finches, during the winter. Allow their seed heads to ripen until they turn brown and split open. These seed capsules are like salt shakers full of tiny seeds. They’ll self-sow to create more native flowers! Discover 20 self-sowing flowers.
On the other hand, there are some plants that should be cut back to avoid issues. Such plants as peonies, bearded iris, and lilies can be cut back to a height of 3 to 5 inches. Iris borers overwinter in/on the foliage, so removing it in the fall is a good idea. Learn which perennials to leave and which to cut back.
Of course, remove any diseased plants at once. This removes overwintering fungi and insects that can attack plants in the spring.
2. Clear Away Old Crops
It’s important to clear away diseased plants and any dead or rotting plant material. Pest insects, like squash bugs, and diseases will overwinter, which serves as a haven for diseases, bridging the gap between this year’s crops and the next’s. Cover the ground with an organic mulch to protect it from winter weather or plant a cover crop.
For fruit trees and berry bushes, we prefer to delay mulching until the end of winter. This means that once all of the leftover leaves are raked up, frost will have a clear run, penetrating down into the top layers of soil and cleansing it of overwintering pests lurking there.
Take this opportunity to remove canes and other plant supports. Wipe or wash off any soil, leave them to dry off then store them inside or somewhere at least sheltered from the worst of the weather.
Also, weed! You may have thought that weeding was over, but experienced gardeners know that fall is the most important time for weeding—even if frost has killed your flowers and veggies. Winter annual weeds like henbit, common chickweed, and shepherd’s purse will germinate in the fall and resume growth in spring. Managing them in the fall is how you prevent weed problems in the spring!
3. Use Leaves Wisely
We rake, mow, and leaf blow away every leaf and bit of nature. But fallen leaves provide invaluable habitats for overwintering pollinators. Butterflies will overwinter in a chrysalis hanging from a dead plant, native bees will “hibernate” in the hollow stem of a bee balm plant, birds will flit around spent sunflowers, and caterpillars will roll into the seedpod of a milkweed plant. Frogs and other wildlife also need fall leaves for insulation the way we need a winter coat. Having a layer of leaves can help protect spring peepers and may make a difference in their ability to survive.
Don’t just bag up all your leaves to be taken away. If you can, leave a few out-of-the-way leaf piles, perhaps in the corner of your yard or under shrubs. Leave the leaves whole; do not shred. Or, if you have a lot of leaves on your lawn, why not rake them up and make leaf mold with them?! See how to make leaf mold.
Leaves in your lawn can be mowed over and mulched into your turf. This will help return nutrients back into the soil and build organic matter. Don’t let the leaves build up too much if you go this route, or they may not work their way down through the turf. You may need to mow several times if you have a lot of leaves on your lawn. Add some of the shredded or whole leaves to your garden beds or other areas of your property where they can serve as a mulch and break down over time.
Credit: Bob Winters/Shutterstock
Definitely do take the time to fish out leaves that have landed in ponds. If they sink to the bottom and rot, they will reduce water quality, with a knock-on impact on wildlife. Pumps and fountains should be removed, cleaned and drained before storing.
4. Compost Leaves (If You Aren’t Already)
Speaking of dead leaves, fall is the best time to start a compost pile. Why? You’re cutting down dead foliage, weeding, and shredding leaves, which all combine to make free, nutrient-rich fertilizer for the spring. For faster composting, layer your “brown” leaves with ”green” materials in order to mix both high-carbon and high-nitrogen materials. Keep the pile slightly moist and turn it once in a while to aerate and mix the material. See how to get your compost heap cooking.
5. Leave Grass Long
Just as we leave some perennials longer, you’re best leaving grass to grow a little longer over the winter. Soil-enriching caterpillars and other bugs bury right down into the thatch; a close-cropped lawn doesn’t do them any favors.
For this reason, set your mower blades fairly high for the final cut of the season. This will help to protect the soil and make your turf healthier, too. You can also take the opportunity to give your lawns a neat, crisp finish. Also, if you mow your lawn, use a shredding mower, as it’s actually healthier to return that leaf litter to the soil.
6. Plant Wildlife-Friendly Shrubs
Fall is a good time to plant new wildlife-friendly hedges. Include berry-producing species like hawthorn or shrubs like pussy willow that will support butterflies. See the best shrubs for the birds.
7. Plant Bulbs for Pollinators
Autumn is also the ideal time to plant spring-flowering bulbs to provide early nectar for pollinators like bees. Daffodils, crocuses, grape hyacinths and the stunning snake’s-head fritillary are a few good choices. See our list of fall-planting bulbs for spring flowers.
Plant by late October into early November. Larger bulbs are best planted 8 inches deep; smaller bulbs, 4 inches deep. Bulbs are best planted in groups or beds of the same color, but you can also scatter bulbs across your perennial beds for pops of color in early spring. If deer are a problem in your area, avoid tulips. Stick to daffodils and allium and crocus.
Speaking of bulbs, be sure to dig up tropicals such as cannas, dahlias, elephant ear, caladium, and gladiolus before a hard freeze arrives!
8. Help Out Garden Wildlife
Finally, be proactive and do all you can to help garden wildlife. Keep bird feeders topped up. Birds particularly appreciate fatty, high-energy foods during the cold months. Establish a feeding routine, offer water, and clean feeders and bird baths regularly to maintain good hygiene. See more about feeding garden birds in winter.
Watch how we tidy up the garden and help wildlife at the same time!
The important point is to consider our garden allies as we go through our garden cleanup checklist. Where will they spend the winter and what will they eat? Share your tips for getting the balance right down below! We’d love to know your views and experiences on this.