The sunny days of late fall and early winter have homeowners and gardeners outside, armed with clippers and rakes, cleaning out planting beds, dumping flower pots and burning leaves.
These are time honored traditions that are being challenged because being a little less tidy helps wildlife and the environment. It is time to put down the tools and reconsider fall-winter cleanup.
Gardeners have always been advised that allowing leaves and fall plants to stay in the garden untouched will attract harmful insects, rodents and diseases. In some cases that is true but the other side of the story is that leaves, clippings and standing flower stalks help birds and beneficial insects make it through the cold months.
The same leaves, stems and twigs that we used to bag and dispose of can be transformed into habitat and soil amendment. Leaves can even stay on the lawn as winter mulch if they are first chopped with a lawn mower. Lawns that are mulched with chopped leaves and clippings need much less fertilizer and water to maintain them.
Pull all the weeds in the garden so they do not drop more seeds for rapid spring growth. If you plan to expand a growing area, put 10 sheets of newsprint down on the new garden space and pile it with those weeds and clippings.
Tomato and pepper plants should be removed completely. If they were healthy before the killing frost, put them into the compost. If they had blight or an insect infestation, put them in the trash so the problems do not get recycled back onto the garden in the spring.
Iris corms have to be cleaned off so they can absorb sun over the winter and bloom next spring. In general, fall planted bulbs benefit from chopped leaf mulch but early bulbs such as crocus and snowdrops are better off without mulch. I have noticed that whole leaves left on daffodil bulbs are like a wet washcloth on the bulb growth when it tries to emerge early spring. Under the winter-wet leaves the daffodil greenery is pale and yellow.
Also keep mulch of any kind at least 6-inches away from tree trunks. Chewing insects, mice and voles enjoy living where they eat.
Vegetables to leave in the garden over the winter months include: Arugula, kale, chard, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, radishes, broad beans and other cool weather crops. Wire worms and slugs are actually reduced by their presence but, do remove any plants that had significant numbers of flea beetles, or diseases like black spot, rust or powdery mildew.
Plants that need dry soil should be cleared of leaves and debris, such as sedums, creeping thyme, Artemisia, lavender and Lamb’s ears.
Prune any diseased, damaged or dead stems but healthy stems will sprout new growth where they are pruned, creating a potential problem. Wait to prune until the dead of winter.
Flower heads, seed pods, stalks and other untidy looking parts of the winter garden are food and shelter to lady beetles, butterflies, spiders and other beneficial insects. You can watch the birds over the winter as they scratch under leaf piles to find seeds and bugs to keep them going.
Doug Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home” said, “96% of our birds raise their young on insects. No insects, no baby birds. No baby birds, no big birds.”
A small brush pile with leaves and flower stalks will help lizards, bees, frogs, toads, rabbits, and box turtles make it through the ice and snow. Any additional leaves and small twigs can be piled in an out of the way corner to make mulch for next summer.