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.
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.
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.
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?