It’s late autumn, and you know what that means: raking leaves, cutting back plants, and stuffing the resulting plant debris into giant brown paper bags. But does it have to mean that? In my case, for the most part, it does not.

Switchgrass in the November sun.

A lot has been written about the benefits of NOT cleaning up your garden until spring, and not too early in spring at that. What it boils down to is this: all kinds of beneficial and/or pretty little insects are sleeping in that plant debris.

Aster seeds, ready to float off to a new home.

We’re talking pollinators, butterflies, and insect predators of redeeming social importance. They may be  snuggled into hollow stems, or hibernating under fallen leaves, or watching Netflix on their iphones while huddled in dense clumps of perennials. (OK, I made up that last one.)

River Oats seed, ready to shatter and fall to ground.

This approach to garden cleanup nicely complements the fact that I often feel plain lazy at this time of year, especially after I’ve planted a few hundred bulbs in the cooling earth.

This weekend, though, I roused myself to cut back some plants that have too much of a tendency to self-sow where they are not wanted. Specifically, River Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) and various asters.


Probably this is a case of too little, too late, as the seeds of both have been ripe for a good while and many have wandered off to find new homes for themselves. In fact even as I was cutting stems seeds were floating off on their little parachutes (in the case of the Asters) or dropping to the ground.

River Oats and Switchgrass

I didn’t grind up or dispose of the stems and seeds, though. Instead I spread them out over areas where more Asters or River Oats would be a useful thing.

How diligent have you been with your fall garden cleanup?


47 Comments on “Lazy Man’s Fall Cleanup

  1. I just hope you didn’t give them our Netflix password. And they’re probably using our WiFi, that explains why it’s so slow.

  2. I’m 100% in your camp. Insects need as much help as we can give them and the benefits extend to birds too. I like to tell people that forests haven’t got pixies in them to rake up the leaves, and yet look how beautiful they are!

  3. I have been moderately virtuous. Our trees are still shedding. Plus a small army of utility people have been swarming the neighborhood planting tiny flags in and spray painting on the leaves. As a fellow lazy person, I appreciate the excuse not to rake wherever there is flag or paint.

  4. We need, as gardeners, to get over the idea that being neat and tidy is a virtuous act. Nature is “messy.” She doesn’t give a hoot about cleaning up plant debris and litter. In fact, she relies on it. And, perhaps, there is purpose to it. Except for getting leaves off the lawn and cleaning up the vegetable garden, let sleeping dogs lie.

  5. I am doing less but our early and continuing snowfalls and cold temps have played havoc with leaves not coming down and making cleanup almost impossible. Spring will tell if not doing it was problematic or not.

  6. Grass goes green in winter here, growing with a life force all its own, so I do some cleanup and preparation for spring. Some areas I leave as is until spring, for all the reasons you mention.

  7. Peony foliage, Siberian iris bloomstalks, and river oats seedheads are my only fall cutdowns. I wish the Chasmanthium seeds, which have a germination rate of 110%, weren’t so enthusiastic; they’re beautiful in deep winter, especially against snow.

    • I know what you mean about the Chasmanthium – you hate to cut them down but you’ll hate yourself the following year if you don’t. Your comment reminds me that I need to cut down the Peonies – though it might be too late.

  8. GREAT POST! I have been leaving the beds alone for the most part until spring. I do need to cut off the dead Cannas so I can mulch their bed with leaves. Once the ground freezes enough the shade beds need a mulch of leaves (for the Hosta and Heuchera). That is not a chore I enjoy because it can be quite a messy job. Some plants have seeds that the birds can eat over the winter. Some perennials have hollow stems that can fill with water and freeze which is not good for them. Leaving the dead stems intact also allow mulch and fallen leaves to stay in place instead of being blown away by the wind. Of course, as you said, there are a lot of beneficial insects hibernating in the leaves and other debris. Thanks for sharing!

  9. I cut down any tall stuff that might flop onto smaller plants and it all goes onto the compost heap or in our compost bin, so I suppose the insects and creatures have it nice and cosy over winter! I try and leave as much as possible standing though.

  10. Thanks to you, my fall clean up has been simplified to the point where it hardly feels like a clean up. I have found that spring clean up is no worse than it was when I cut everything back. And the plants do just as well. I would call that a win. Many thanks!!!

  11. I’m with you! I always leave the seed heads for the birds and leave the leaves on all the borders for the insects and

  12. Not much cleanup happening around here other than mowing the leaves (they fertilize the trees). I have a love/hate relationship with river oats – love the copper color in fall, hate the way the seeds take root everywhere.

  13. I was successful before these frozen and snowy days (what fall?). I did cut down some wildflowers but left a lot. I did the much around roses and trees and feel very virtuous. I kept things as long as I could and there is plenty for sleepy hibernating visitors.

  14. I have done zero fall cleanup…the annuals in pots have been dealt with, but other than that, everything else is still standing…or falling over, as the case may be 😉

  15. I have to admit I only stopped clearing debris and dead-heading flowers once I began reading blogs like yours and others … although it makes perfect sense that insects need the debris during the colder months. This year in spring we had lots of Lady Beetles, which we haven’t had for a few years … so all is going well.

  16. I think nature may be in the process of cleaning up a few things around here. The first strong front of the season arrived last evening; right now we have 42F, wind gusts of 50mph, and a freeze warning for tonight. I’ll be spending this morning indoors rather than at work, and I’ll not call it laziness, just another variety of the common sense you’re exhibiting.

    • We’re having a big thaw today, things are rather slushy and muddy. Other than refilling the bird feeders and taking out the trash and recycling, I am staying indoors. Still cold enough to have a fire in the fireplace tonight, I think.

      • Here in the south-of-Houston suburbs (and presumably in Houston, too) there’s the odd custom of opening all the windows on such nights to make it cold enough for a fire in the fireplace. We are such strange creatures, sometimes.

  17. We don’t get snow to obscure what we don’t clean up. I like to clean up early because pathogens overwinter in debris just like the beneficials do. I really don’t want rose debris to lay around any longer than it must.

      • Is sanitation as important there for roses? Some pathogens may not overwinter as efficiently through such cold winters. Evergreen pear and evergreen ash, which are not so evergreen where winters are cooler, are very susceptible to pathogens that overwinter on the old foliage that stays in the trees until new foliage emerges in spring. Roses defoliate completely, but the fallen leaves are not totally desiccated by spring either. New growth often develops on roses before all the old foliage has fallen off.

      • It is just as well. You don’t need any more commitments in your garden. It is easy to get carried away with roses.

  18. I have been semi-diligent, which means that I spent one day removing about five bags of fallen leaves (mostly blown in from the neighbor’s remaining oaks) and decided to cut the smaller cotinus back now instead of trying to do both of them in the spring. I rationalized that there were two maples who hadn’t shed even one leaf yet. About 50% of their leaves have yet to fall, so I am still rationalizing. I will probably walk around with my battery-powered leaf blower if we get a warmish day in early December but that’s it. That said, more than a dozen of my planting beds were made into “blank slates” this year which means much less to do! 🙂

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