Last Plant Standing: Fall vs. Spring Garden Clean Up

One way to classify gardeners is based on whether they remove dead plant material in fall or spring. Mostly I’m a spring cleaner.

Birds and bugs are my primary reason. The other day I watched goldfinches feeding on the seed heads of yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), one of the late season sights I love. These and other seed heads are basically free bird feeders. And the tiny seeds left on the ground will attract sparrows and buntings in spring.

Joe Pye Weed
Sweet Joe Pye Weed seed heads in fall.

Plus, there are all kinds of eggs and hibernating critters in the stems and under the leaf litter. Let them be and you are more likely to have a diverse and healthy population of insects. This is a positive thing as it reduces the chance any one insect species will become a serious problem.

Some people  are very enthusiastic about the winter interest perennials can provide. Personally, I can’t really swoon over beds full of dead stalks and seed heads the way I would over blooming flowers. They do have their modest appeal, though. But winter interest is a minor factor in my clean up decisions.

Except for grasses, that is. Grasses do look good in winter.

Virginia Wild Rye
Virginia Wild Rye

I don’t leave everything up in the garden. Tomato vines are pulled up, as leaving them probably means more diseases next year. Also, my peony foliage is suffering from serious downy mildew by August or September, and it is  removed as well.

There are some disadvantages to delaying clean up until spring. If you grow plants with a tendency to self-sow, as I do, you may be driven to distraction with the zillions of seedlings popping up the next spring. This is an inconvenience  I’ve chosen to live with, especially since it ensures lots of new plants should I want them.

Rudbeckia seed heads
Rudbeckia seed heads

Of course, some people think leaving the plants up looks messy. When they lived at home my kids would complain about the “giant brown stalky things” all over the garden. They were particularly unenthused about the really big plants like Joe Pye Weed and Cup Plant.

However, I say that messy is in the eye of the beholder. A flower bed should not be empty and barren, even in winter. As for my kids, I advised them it is never too early to start saving up for their own houses.

So what kind of gardener are you: a fall cleaner or a spring cleaner?

74 Comments on “Last Plant Standing: Fall vs. Spring Garden Clean Up

  1. Most of the time I am an enthusiastic fall and winter cleaner. Here in the PNW we can often continue to do clean-up chores throughout winter because we have so little snow. I’m not much into winter interest either. Plus, if I clear out and cut back as much as possible, I can often weed throughout the winter and get a head start on the weeding in the spring. Right now I’m actually looking forward to a hard freeze, I just want everything to die already so I can have a go at whacking it all down.

    • It must make a big difference having such a mild winter. Here you will not do garden clean up once the deep freeze sets in. The only exception is I will do some pruning of woody plants.

  2. Where I live (Upstate SC), it is better to clean in spring since the plant crowns need all the protection they can get in our up and down (freeze and thaw) weather. Salvias, in particular, are especially susceptible to crown rot.

  3. I’m definitely one of those who love the “winter interest” dead perennials provide. The huge Joe Pye Weed is one of my favorites! Grasses really are the backbone of my garden in winter though…they are invaluable, and really exploit the weather, wether it be raindrops, frost or (fingers crossed) snow! Plus, as you mentioned, it’s so good for the birds and insects. I love looking out my windows and seeing the finches darting about on the Rudbeckia and Agastache. I don’t do any clean-up until spring, right about mid-February here (by that time, things are looking pretty rough anyway). Tidiness is overrated 😉

    • Definitely agree with you about tidiness. As to winter interest, I had a friend visit from LA one winter. His comment: “How come everything’s dead? I thought you were such a big gardener!”

  4. I´m a spring cleaner. I do as my mother did, leave the stalks to protect the plants through winter. The garden would look awfully empty without any plants in it, even if they are brown and sagging.

  5. I’m a spring or at least late winter clean-up fan. Mostly like you for the insects etc. that need places to live. I garden organically so I need the good insects to have somewhere to hibernate. I do like the seed-heads and most stems, if there are any really messy or blackened plants I do cut then down. I actually think you have less weeds if you do it in spring, if you leave the soil uncovered more seeds germinate! Seedlings from garden plants are easy to remove in comparison to most weeds and as you say you have some more plants if you need them.

  6. I suppose it’s about fifty fifty with me. Some things just have to go when they get slimy and flop everywhere, smothering other plants. A few things are left to act as a mulch over winter.

  7. I love your last photo, Jason, the Rudbeckia heads look sunny or golden. Are they self sown in your garden or these seeds are for animals?

  8. We have a lot of goldfinches here in York, but it is the niger seed on our bird table that attract them.
    Like you I do my clearing up in late winter. All the herbaceous tops are lighter to clear away and some of their decaying ‘goodness’ will have been washed into the ground. I do worry that the ladybirds hibernate in them – and then I clear them away.
    You mention all the self seeding. I am actually posting about self sown seed tomorrow

    • I put out nyjer seed also, but the goldfinches also love eating seeds from several plants. Goldfinch favorites seem to include Cup Plant, Anise Hyssop, and Purple or Yellow Coneflower.

  9. In my own garden, I clean up mostly in late winter for the sake of birds and bugs, like you. Plus it is easier in February or Match when old stems snap off easily. In our clients’ gardens, we do a lot of fall cleanup, especially in town and resort gardens, because passersby don’t get why a garden is left looking “messy” in winter. Also I don’t want to be hit with all those clean ups at the same time if I waited till Feb to start them. I do leave everyone’s grasses standing in winter. Even if clients don’t like that, I tell them we need to “protect the crowns from rotting”.

    • The tyranny of neatness. But I can see not wanting to have to do lots of gardens at the same time, that would make for some very long days.

  10. I balance a little of both. I try to deadhead as much as possible because of the bulk of snow that sits on the plants for months. But…I don’t get it all done because of the number of beds.

      • We had a little over 7′ of snow last year not counting what comes off the trees and the drifts. So, the plants are just buried under it until the end of April, and it is hard to clean up in the spring. A nice little dusting on the grasses would be pretty but a nice little dusting is not normally what we get. 🙂

  11. I’m the same as you, I leave anything that is good for wildlife until the spring. I do try to keep on top of the leaves though but leave some in borders to protect young shoots from

  12. I do a fair bit of cleaning up. Usually, by the time the really cold weather arrives, I have not yet finished cleaning and that is where I stop! This is what is happening this year. All the roses are protected but some perennials are still up.

  13. Love your child rearing philosophy. I too, wait until spring for the bulk of the clean up to keep the birds and insects happy. The only exceptions are my vegetable garden area, the peonies, the iris, and the phlox if they are having a bad year with mildew (which seems to be most years, now that I think about it). Excellent posting, keep up the good work.

  14. Nice reflections on “cleanup”, Jason. I do both. Since I’m an avid seed collector, I take some but also leave some for the birds. I also take the visual approach – if it looks really crappy, out it goes! Other things, like grasses, are indeed eye-pleasing. Sweet pix.

  15. Hi! I have the same line of thinking as you. I clean out all of the edibles and trim some perennials such as peonies but leave anything thought of as “winter interest.” I have to contend with the many self seedlings as well but like you said it is just an inconvenience. Does your Joe Pye Weed self seed?

    • It certainly does! Actually, the cultivar ‘Gateway’ doesn’t seem to self-seed at all, but the species Sweet Joe Pye Weed pops up a lot! Easy to remove, though.

  16. I am the same, spring clean up to leave over wintering birds and insects food and shelter. I am one that happens to like the messy plants of fall because many look really interesting covered in new fallen snow or even frost. Each year I note the best ones and show why I leave them. You have a garden without shrubs, so leaving the dead brown stalks up helps give the garden some interest, but can look messy with out the structure of evergreen shrubs. Mine are for sheltering birds too.

    • I do have some shrubs, but mostly in the back along the property lines. I like when new snow makes little white hats on the Echinacea seed heads.

  17. I can’t bear the finality of a winter tidy as it seems so sad, I love the decay and the protection it gives to so many beneficial creatures. I tidy slowly, finally finishing just as the spring brings so much work with it.

    • In addition to the tomatoes and peonies, I also pull up all the stakes in fall – especially the bamboo ones, which will rot in the winter soil.

  18. For years I spent all of fall right up until it snowed cleaning up client’s gardens, so my own always took a back seat. I noticed the same things that you have about birds and insects and now I leave it until spring on purpose.

  19. I’m in the camp that leaves up most perennials through the winter. I like the idea of feeding and caring for birds and critters, and I like the silhouettes though winter.

  20. Definitely a spring cleaner because in my new garden the weather is a lot more benign and I can really enjoy texture and structure all through winter. Before we used to have tons of snow and everything would be messy. We also spot lots of wildlife sheltering among the grasses and perennials and are happy to provide them with a home.

  21. I leave seedheads up until they are empty…. as I guess I am in-between. I have some peonies that are pretty crispy… powdery mildew gets them every year, but I love the flowers, so they stay.

    • Here by the time they are empty it is too cold to do much outside. The powdery mildew doesn’t hit my peonies until several weeks after they bloom.

  22. Also a spring cleaner. Usually only the soggy, sloppy dead annuals get pulled out, the rest stays. I find things break down and dry out during the winter, and it’s much less work then to just rake it and haul it to the compost come springtime.

  23. My tidiness gene wars with my ecological, bird and insect loving gene so I clean up some beds in autumn and let others lie until early spring/late winter. The Crocosmias particularly have my eye this week, as they all languish lower and lower over the ground. I will be hard pressed not to chop every one this weekend! But the Rudbeckia can stay just as long as it wants to feed chickadees and tits!

  24. I have mixed feelings. I like the garden to be somewhat tidy, but I also like to leave seed heads for birds and other animals. So I clean up some areas- particularly along the picket fence at the front. My neighbours are silent on the issue, but probably grateful. I also cut down my sunflowers, but propped them up where the birds can still find them. Other parts of the garden I leave for the birds and spring clean-up.

    • Sounds like a reasonable compromise, and thoughtful of the neighbors’ sensibilities. I try to be sensitive to that as well, but not so much on this issue.

  25. Definitely spring, for the reasons you cited, plus it gives me something to do in March when it is too cold to do much of anything else in the garden.

  26. It’s fall for me. Just a word on composting. All those leaves that you scrape up make the most wonderful plant food when rotted down. Best way is a layer of leaves and a half shovelful of soil in layers. It speeds up the process and produces great results.

  27. Reblogged this on gardeninacity and commented:

    My last post was about seedheads, but I was going to talk about the importance of letting plants stand through winter. However, I got distracted and forgot. So I’m reblogging this post from 2013, which addresses the question of fall versus spring cleanup.

    • Worthy of a repost! I clean up in spring, for the reasons you cite – food and shelter for birds, insects and toads, and winter interest. I leave the leaves as well as a natural mulch. We get a lot of oak leaves that I’ve heard are slower to break down, but I figure if I just remove them from the smothered plants in the spring they’ll still provide tons of benefits.

  28. I vascillate. Some years as soon as we get a heavy frost I tear through the garden cleaning everything out. Other years I completely ignore the garden until spring when things begin to grow again.

  29. We have common milkweed that we let grow wherever it pops up. In previous years we removed the stalks after it lost its leaves. This year, we left them because they were supporting spinybacked orbweaver spider webs. Those little spiders are so amazing at catching mosquitoes- there was no way we were going to disturb their work!

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