Fall Garden Cleanup With Pollinators In Mind

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American goldfinch perched on seedhead of purple coneflower plant.
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Nancy Bauer/Shutterstock

Why less is more when it comes to fall cleanup

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There are good reasons to cut back or slow up your fall cleanup. Spare a thought for the beneficial bugs and birds who need shelter over winter—and are our garden allies. Here are seven ways to strike a better balance—and make our fall cleanup a bit easier on our backs as well!

1. Leave Some Leaves

We rake, mow, and leaf blow away every leaf and bit of nature. Do we really need to rake every leaf? The answer to this question is NO. Here are tips:

  •  Leave a few out-of-the-way leaf piles in the corners of your yards and leave leaves under shrubs as a natural insulator. You may not realize it, but you provide safe harbors 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. 
  •  The only area of leaf cleanup that matters is turfgrass. Tree leaves can fall but should not cover a significant portion of turfgrass.  Don’t cover more than 20% of your lawn, nor allow leaves to mat in layers. This inhibits growth, invites mold disease, and encourages turf damage from rodents.
  • What to do with leaves? Mulch with a mower. This has many benefits, from adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil to reducing weed seed germination. This requires more frequent mowing in the fall and possibly several passes with the mower to mulch the leaves into small pieces.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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
wheelbarrow in the fall
Credit: Bob Winters/Shutterstock

2. Compost Leaves (If You Aren’t Already)

Of course, you can compost the leaves. Fall is the perfect time to start a compost pile in the corner of your yard to make free, nutrient-rich fertilizer for the spring. Layer your “brown” leaves with “green” materials to mix high-carbon and high-nitrogen materials for faster composting. Keep the pile slightly moist and turn it occasionally to aerate and mix the material. See how to build a compost heap to keep it cooking.


3. Clean Up Perennial Flowers

In general, consider 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. We can preserve these pollinating insects by leaving this plant material in the landscape 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, some plants should be cut back to avoid issues. Such plants as peonies, bearded irises, 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. 


4. Clear Away Vegetable 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 is a haven for diseases, bridging the gap between this year’s crops and the next. 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 it to dry off, and then store it inside or somewhere at least sheltered from the worst of the weather.

Also, weed! You may have thought that the 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 prevents weed problems in the spring!


5. Leave Grass Long

Just as we leave some perennials longer,  you’re best leaving the 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 season’s final cut. This will help protect the soil and make your turf healthier. 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. Support Wildlife

One of the fall tasks we enjoy is gathering shrub clippings and creating brush piles in the yard’s corners. Think of this as creating little safe houses for birds and little mammals (as well as frogs and reptiles). Place tree and shrub branches on the top of the pile for warmth and protection.

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 regularly clean feeders and bird baths to maintain good hygiene. See more about feeding garden birds in winter.

Fall is also 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.

cardinal in the garden

7. Plant Bulbs for Pollinators

Remember that those spring-flowering bulbs 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, allium, and crocus.

Speaking of bulbs, be sure to dig up tropicals such as cannas, dahlias, elephant ears, caladium, and gladiolus before a hard freeze arrives! 

Learn more! 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 beneficial pollinators 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.

Learn more about overwintering your plants and garden and preparing your garden for winter.

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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