Feb 28

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Mr. Clean Need Not Apply … Just Yet

Plant material in garden left standing over winter

Bet you can’t wait to clean this up!
Photo courtesy of Wild Ones – St. Louis Chapter

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 best 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.

Sleeping Caterpillar

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.


[Editor’s Note: This story was posted originally on the Wild Ones – St. Louis Chapter website on February 24.]

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About the author

Dawn Weber

Dawn serves as a Habitat Advisor for St. Louis Audubon Society’s Bring Conservation Home program, assisting landowners in restoring native plant and animal habitat. She is also an active participant and board member for the Wild Ones – St. Louis chapter. When not working at her “real job” in software development, she spends a lot of time in her St. Louis city native garden, studying, photographing, and enjoying all of the life that it supports.

Permanent link to this article: http://stlouisaudubon.org/blog/mr-clean-need-not-apply-just-yet/


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  1. Cori Westcott

    Scott Woodbury suggests raking the leaves off the garden beds in February. That way the overwintering insects have had their shelter and you could simply move them to a pile that can be further mulched down by a mower later in March. The leaves serve as terrific insulators in the winter but may hinder the young shoots and definitely prohibit seed sprouting efforts.
    I leave my cut stems on the garden bed. They’ll break down and feed the soil.
    Thanks for this article, Dawn. I love the title and that sign is a wonderfully friendly way of educating the neighbors.

    1. Dawn Weber

      That is a good point about the leaves possibly getting in the way of spring growth. I do have some spots where I want some seed germination, like where I’m trying to get my beakgrain to spread. You may have talked me into some raking 😀

  2. Gail Saxton

    Thanks for the very helpful article, Dawn. I no longer feel guilty that yard is still untidy!

  3. mitch

    Awesome piece Dawn! I read Vogt’s article, too, but will need more time to scan the booklet, which I have downloaded. THANKS!

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