Why Not To Clear Your Garden

Last week I promised to tell you why it’s good to keep your garden standing through the winter, but I’m no expert so I turned to Marcy Cunkelman for advice.

Here are some general principles, then her entire response below.

Why not clear your garden in the fall?  Here are some quick reasons:

  • The seeds provide winter food for birds and animals.
  • The brush provides shelter.
  • If you leave the old plants standing you don’t have to mulch.
  • Insects overwinter on the plants in egg masses, cocoons and galls.  Birds eat them.
  • You will learn a lot by watching the birds find food among the plants.

Here’s Marcy’s complete answer:

Most people like to clear everything in the fall because it “looks good” all cleared up.  I don’t mulch my plants for the winter. I leave my garden standing and it protects the plants.

I will cut back some things if they break and the wind starts moving them from one place to the other.  Grasses are a good example of this, especially the heavy leaves.  After seed heads are eaten I don’t mind cutting them back BUT you need to look hard for praying mantis egg cases, chrysalises and cocoons.  This is how most insects overwinter.

If I had a problem plant with scale or aphids, I cut it back and get rid of the problem stems (do NOT put in the compost).

I am always amazed to see how birds use the plants. I wouldn’t have noticed this if I took down the goldenrod galls or missed that praying mantis egg case, I wouldn’t have seen the downy woodpecker or chickadees getting the little treasures inside.

If you do have to clear, then at least save the seed heads and keep them some place where the birds will be able to eat them through the winter.  Maybe some will seed and root and you’ll have a little “wild area” the birds and other critters will enjoy.  I have been taking seed heads and sprinkling them in areas around the yard, edges of the woods and my “meadow” so there will be a variety of plants for the birds and butterflies.

Something else I like to do, when I make jellies I save the leftover pulp and freeze and thaw it out and put it out for the birds in winter.  The fruit loving birds will eat it and it doesn’t go to waste.  I usually do this if I have a mockingbird, robins or bluebirds in the winter.  Most years the flocks of robins begin to return to the yard in late February or early March.

When I start to see the “noses” of the daffodils pushing up in the spring it’s time for me to start cleaning the beds, usually around the pond areas first since that is the most visible from the house.  I love to see the progression from nothing to at least 5 changes of season in the plants, birds, butterflies and other critters.   — Marcy Cunkleman


(photo by Chuck Tague)

10 thoughts on “Why Not To Clear Your Garden

  1. I have 6 giant hibiscus that I cut down in the fall to about 2 feet high, mainly so I remember where they are. Last spring I saw all sorts of little birds tugging on the stems and flying off with the pieces that came loose. Guess they were just right for nesting!

  2. Thanks Lisa for reminding me…I always save my common milkweed stalks after the leaves fall off, put them in the barn or a protected area and then in mid-April, tie them to a tree or put in a tomato cage and let the orioles, robins, phoebe, chipping sparrows and other birds peel off the fiber strands. Orioles now go to that first over the string or baler twine offered.

    In the spring, when I am clearing things away, I like to make some piles of very fine grasses and even leaves from the day lilies, under shrubs or inside the shrubs and the birds will come and use those for nesting material. Bluebirds and Robins like this “help.”

    If you left the seed heads on your hibiscus (rose of sharon and other shrubs have seeds thru the winter) the birds will eat those also. I guess that is why I don’t have hundreds of seedlings around.

  3. We leave our ornamental grass up all winter, and last spring we saw an English Sparrow (I know they are finches, but I don’t know their proper name) try to carry a 3 or 4 foot long piece up to the eaves of the house next door where he was making his nest….wasn’t too successful (we watched the grass drift to the ground beside the house). Our neighbors probably wondered how it got there.

  4. We are very LAZY gardeners, so appreciate all the reasons to not clear before winter! However, there are some little nasties that I think need to be cleared–it’s something that flowers a pretty yellow flower, but has seed pods that look sort of like dandelion puffs. (I can’t be more specific.) It takes over everywhere, with a stem 18-24 inches high. It doesn’t seem to propogate by root, but more by wind seeding. Is this something useful, although in the wrong place for us?

    Also–a friend asked me, thinking I know more than I do, what bird eats thistle during the winter? I hazarded “chickadees”? Should she continue to fill her condominium feeder for them?


  5. I’ve never fed thistle (which by the way, is a misnomer according to this article I found, it’s really Nyjer seed…http://www.ebirdseed.com/nyjer_niger_thistle_birdseed.html) because it’s so expensive, but I would think most finches would eat it…we certainly have gold finches and house finches all winter. Not sure how many other birds eat it.

    For your plant, when does it bloom? If it blooms with dandelion type flowers in the early spring before the leaves are up, then is followed by big roundish or heart-shaped green leaves it would be colt’s foot (pretty invasive). These do get seed puffs just like dandelions. If the flower were blooming in the fall, it could be hawkweed (http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=HIGR3), but the flowers are small and there are multiple flowers per stem, usually (and some varieties get pretty big, although some are smaller), and not really a puff.

  6. I liked the comment about being a lazy gardener….I have had comments from neighborhood gardeners when I leave my purple coneflowers uncut over winter. They seemed surprised when I said it was to feed the birds!

  7. Hmmm? Mary Ann–I checked w/ my friend and she has Nyjer seed, but her bag called it thistle, so she did. Her condo feeder is outside her window, so she’ll keep it filled, and see who comes.

    I checked on the hawkweed picture, and I don’t think that’s it. I wish they had a picture of the plant itself with the leaves, as only the flowers showed. My “weed”does not bloom early, but it lasts all summer, and seems to bloom hardiest when it’s very dry and hot? The flowers are tiny, bell-shaped, not like dandelions, with their open faces. We still have seed puffs, not as round and circular as dandelions, but the puffs behave the same way–scattering everywhere when you dig the root up. The roots are shallow, but extensive. Do you know if it’s useful? Otherwise, it’s gonna be gone, Mon or Tue, when the weather accomodates!

    We will not cut down the Rose-of-Sharon for the winter, or prune otherwise. The big thing is to get the daffodils back in before it’s too late!


  8. “Nyjer” seed:

    This plant suffers from name confusion. Originally I think it was African Thistle or something similar, but people were afraid it would take root and fill their lawn with thistles. Wrong. Entirely different plant, no problem.

    Then there was “Niger” seed, like the African country of Niger. This looked too much like the “n-word” and offended people who misread it.

    “Nyjer” was the spelling adopted to avoid the misreading/mispronouncing problem.

    1. There was a young lady from Niger
      Who smiled as she rode on a tiger.
      They came back from the ride
      With the lady inside
      And the smile on the face of the tiger.

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