Mr. Clean Need Not Apply … Just Yet

By Dawn Weber
Member-at-Large, Wild Ones – St. Louis Chapter

Dried grass with seeds in snow

Bet you can’t wait to clean this up!

Does this unseasonably nice weather have you itching to go out and clean up the garden? By February, things may be looking a little ragged. Strong winds have knocked over some of the taller plants, indigo “tumbleweeds” are blowing around, and there are leaves everywhere.

When the first sign of warmer weather comes, as gardeners, we want to get out there and work, but there are good reasons to wait.

Benjamin Vogt is one of my favorite authors in the native plant scene, and he published this article in 2015 on holding off on the spring cleaning.

By leaving the garden standing in the fall, we’ve given the insects cozy homes to stay in until spring.  Even though the weather has warmed early, they may not be ready to come out yet.  It’s possible we’ll still have another cold snap before spring really arrives.

There’s no negative effect (in terms of the insects or the plants) of leaving things in place longer, but depending on the location of your garden you may want to factor in the neighbors, consider your spring activities, etc. and get a head start.

You can remove last year’s growth but keep it as intact as possible, and put it in another location in the yard, so that you’re accomplishing the cleanup, but also giving the insects time to come out when they’re ready. I leave the leaves in place longer than the stems, because so many critters overwinter in the leaf litter.

One of my favorite finds on the internet is a brochure from the American Museum of Natural History about the invertebrates that live in the leaf litter. Some I knew about, others I didn’t, and now I’m on the lookout for activity in that layer of the garden.

Last year I left things in place until the end of March, and started clearing the previous year’s growth away as I saw the plants start to emerge. The linked article suggests April 1 for our area. This year I’ve already started doing some cutting down in the front yard but keeping the stems intact and moving them to the backyard, because I know that my spring is going to be super busy and I want my neighbors to keep loving my native landscape.

Do Not Disturb the garden sign

I think my neighbors will understand why I leave the plants standing with a sign like this.

Next winter, I plan to use this sign in the front yard to let my neighbors know why I leave everything in place.

When do you plan to clean up your yard? And what tips can you share?

Other resources:

  1. Doug Tallamy, of the University of Delaware and Bringing Nature Home, writes about overwintering insects, posted on the national Wild Ones website.
  2. Leslie Hubbard, of the Mt. Cuba Center, writes about waiting to clean up the garden.
  3. Jessica Walliser writes about spring cleaning done right.

8 thoughts on “Mr. Clean Need Not Apply … Just Yet

  1. Very timely information. Instead of trimming back you can get a head start on the early weeds like henbit/deadnettle, creeping charlie and corn speedwell.

    • Good call! I’ve been digging out Star of Bethlehem 🙁 Sue Leahy has a blog post coming up about it….and all of it’s evilness.

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