Gardener, Spare That Stem!

Do you ever wonder if it is better to clean up the garden in fall or wait until spring? Well, stop wondering. Garden clean up in spring is far better – that is, if you want your garden to be full of birds, bees, butterflies, and other beautiful or helpful creatures.

Eastern Comma butterflies hibernate as adults in plant litter.

The Native Plant Herald, which is the blog of Prairie Nursery, an excellent source for native plants, has a recent post on this topic that is well worth reading.

Bees, butterflies, and beneficial insect predators can more easily survive the winter in a garden full of leaf litter and standing stalks. Many butterfly species hibernate in leaf litter, either as adults or caterpillars. Many bees overwinter in the stems of dead plants (even in spring, The Native Plant Herald recommends allowing the first 10-15″ of stem to stand).

Goldfinch on Cup Plant – he needs seedheads in winter.

Similarly, Native ladybugs, those voracious eaters of aphids, overwinter under leaves.

Birds benefit over winter from seedheads, as well as from added shelter. In addition, allowing plants to stand promotes a greater spring insect population, which adds to an essential source of protein for birds.

Garden in November
Let the plants stay up until spring and your garden may be more interesting through winter.

For my fellow procrastinators, please note that this is one of the few instances where virtue is on the side of those who put off a major chore. So take advantage of it!

Go read the post, you can find it by clicking here.

By the way, in case you were wondering, I derived my title from that great 1837 hit, ‘Woodman, Spare That Tree’. Perhaps not very appealing to contemporary musical tastes, but if you’re curious you can give a listen on the above link.


51 Comments on “Gardener, Spare That Stem!

  1. I like the term “textured” yard–I’m going to start calling mine that.

  2. Pingback: autumn clearances postponed – floatsome

  3. I feel guilty now for cutting back a lot because I couldn’t stand the dead look any more, but most things are growing again so there should be plenty more stems and leaf litter when the garden takes its winter snooze.

  4. Ah, I knew there was a valid, scientific reason for not clearing everything up in autumn… 🙂

  5. Good idea to write about this …now I won’t feel so bad about not tidying up…… I’ve often had paralysing Irish guilt at this time of the year…

    • The point about not cleaning until spring being good for perennials was also made in this post. You can always compromise and clean up the messyest bits.

  6. I’ve always been happy with knowing this, so I can feel justified in my procrastination:) I must admit I cut down a few coneflowers yesterday just to “neaten” up some areas. And I intend to cut back or pull out as many of the Rudbeckia triloba as I can–they will take over otherwise!

    • Well, I cut down a few Cup Plants (they are 10′ high, after all), but I let them lie on the ground for the winter. This weekend I’m going to cut back some of the asters – but only the flowers.

  7. What about plants such as hostas, which get floppy and yellow? Do you wait until spring for those, too? I must admit, I am tempted to leave everything until spring. With my book coming out, this fall is very, very busy. One more question: Do you feel overwhelmed in the spring by having to cut back the plants, along with all the other chores?

      • I’m going to try leaving everything until spring. So busy with my book that it would be a blessing not to have to cut everything back.

  8. Great post!! Yes–to all of the above. I leave the “sticks” as long as possible, and in fact, don’t rake up leaves and garden detritus in certain parts of my property. I’ve credited that policy with the increasing pollinator action in my garden over time.

  9. I’m so glad that you are spreading the word – hopefully more folks will join the spring cleanup crew. As for me, I’ve always cleaned up the garden in the spring – imagine my delight when I found out that what I considered procrastination was actually the preferred approach 🙂

  10. Fortunately, I didn’t need to be converted because I’m always a procrastinator when it comes to fall clean-up in the garden. But it is good to know that my bad housekeeping is beneficial!

  11. Yes –that’s why I don’t clean the gardens in fall. It has NOTHING to do with my own laziness! Honestly, though, I’m usually tired of gardening by fall, and I like seeing the seed heads in the snow 🙂

  12. I am a spring garden cleaner upper, too. Another benefit for me is that it gives me something to do when I want to be out in the nice spring weather. There is no hurry to get it all done at once, so it is not at all stressful. I have a place across the street where I put stems, just in case there is still something in them.

    • Disposing of stems has been kind of a challenge for me. Last year I hired someone who shredded everything and then spread it on the beds.

  13. Very helpful. I just naturally gravitated more toward spring cleanup. But it’s good to know I’m helping all the critters too! Thanks!

  14. Yes! Good advice! I’ve always had a natural tendency to let things go in the autumn and to busily tidy up in the spring. But I didn’t fully embrace it until about 10 years ago, when I learned the value of all those stems and dried seed heads. Great post! I enjoyed the Prairie Nursery article, too.

  15. I did enjoy that song….I can see why it was a hit. The backing music is a little similar to Shubert’s Ave Maria…you saying as a previous commenter mentioned it.
    I’m with you all the way, spring is SO much better in terms of hacking back, I only remove plants that have fallen flat and regularly trip me up! So many creatures depend on a spring clean up as you

  16. Good advice and I do tend to leave clearance until spring, (the only exception is if I see wind-rock at the roots). I love the look of winter weather on the old seedheads and stems too.

  17. Does this mean leaving leaves as well? I have one each of these trees: tulip, magnolia, dogwood, mulberry, redbud and crabapple. Oh – and a weeping cherry and 2 Japanese maples. I get A LOT of leaves and the large, slippery magnolia leaves make a very thick blanket. I would hate to be tossing out beneficial critters but is it healthy for the yard to leave all those leaves? If it is, I’m happy to try it out.

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