If we stop doing garden clean-up, is it a garden anymore?

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Hellebores and daffodils in late winter, with leaves covering them removed. Photo and garden by Marianne Willburn.

I’ve written about the new messaging we gardeners are receiving – that for the sake of wildlife, we shouldn’t clean up our beds and borders in the fall but should “leave the leaves” to help wildlife.

So when IS it okay to remove dead leaves from flower beds?

The consensus seems to be not until “mid-to late spring,” or more specifically when nighttime temps have been 50+ for a week.  Cornell Extension says: “Postponing fall cleanup until spring, which spawned another movement called #LeaveTheLeaves, will create safe havens for pollinators to lay their eggs and hibernate within. To allow time for them to emerge from dormancy, wait until after spring temperatures have remained above 50 degrees for an entire week before clearing away last season’s plant debris.

The Xerces Society agrees: “In northern states mid-late April should be the earliest you consider cutting back perennials and clearing garden debris. Keep in mind that some bees don’t emerge until late May, so the longer you can tolerate your ‘messy’ garden the better.”

Or never

And lots of other sources agree. But not entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy. When asked in an interview by Amy Dutton about the 50° advice he said “There’s absolutely no ecological basis for that general rule… Every species comes out on its own schedule, from early spring to late summer, or even September. So there’s no magic time when you can go out and do whatever you want in your landscape and not disturb what’s there.”

Instead, he promotes leaving leaves in beds and borders, period. But will that keep plants from coming up in the springtime? It depends. He does remove some leaves from his beds, but says that most of his plants “are really good at tolerating normal levels of leaves.” Asked about putting bark mulch on top of the leaves, he argues against using applying any mulch at all. “Leaves have worked well as mulch for thousands of years.”

But what if our gardens are filled not with plants native or adapted to woodlands, but to prairies or other sunny, dry places where deciduous trees are generally absent?

Gardeners have been told to clean-up earlier, for several reasons

My whole life I’ve cleaned up my flower beds early, like in late February or early March (here in Zone 7), a practice that was the standard recommendation for as long as I’ve been gardening. Or am I imagining that? So I hit Google land found plenty of examples, most of them homing in on the gardener’s biggest chore and challenge – weeding.

Weed Control

Some weeds I’m tackling currently. There are lots more.

From MN Extension‘s “Strategies and Tactics”: “Make weeding a part of every interaction you have with your garden. Always look for a new flush of weed seedlings or an invasion of plants from other parts of your yard…Do not let weeds flower and set seeds. Prevent the number of weeds from increasing by eliminating weeds before they flower.”


From Penn State Extension: “Hand-pull weeds near established plants before the weeds flower and produce seed.”

An Oregon gardener explains the advantages of early clean-up: “No matter what your weather, sometime in March, April, or May is prime time for a spring garden cleanup – and starting as early as you can means less work later on… Taking care of dead branches before trees leaf out, pulling small perennial spring weeds, and covering all the small new annual weeds before they get big (best thing ever!) means more time to enjoy what you love about gardening later on: planting and harvesting your flowers and vegetables, and soaking in the view.”

From Better Homes and Gardens: “The trick is to remove weeds as soon as you see them, since they will only grow bigger and harder to deal with. If you miss them when they’re just seedlings, the next best thing is to get rid of weeds before they flower and go to seed. The good news is that the more you clear out weeds, the healthier and happier your flowering plants will be.”

From Alan Titchmarsh: in Gardener’s World: “Many of the worst garden weeds can quickly take over your garden during the growing season. Weeds start growing earlier in the year than many garden plants, in early spring – so be sure to get on top of them early before they get out of hand…If you ignore them, they’ll spread or set seed, causing bigger problems later on.”

But in my gardening experience, none of that early-and-often weeding can happen when the weeds are covered in leaf litter.

Does leaf litter prevents weeds? I asked this question of the huge Garden Professors Blog Facebook group and one member commented that: “I mulch all soil heavily with leaves in fall so there are almost no weeds in spring (just ones that started pre-mulch or with long tap roots occasionally). I pull the mulch back if needed when I’m ready to seed or plant in spring.” Well, that’s an interesting technique, one I’ll be experimenting with in an out-of-sight spot.

Avoid damaging plants

Daffodils in my flower beds, mid-February.

Another reason gardeners clean flower borders early is to avoid stepping/sitting on emerging plants as we’re battling the weeds or performing other garden chores.  Realistically, if you’ve got a lot of emerging bulbs, good luck trying to avoid them in spring if you haven’t done some earlier clean-up.

Avoid damaging soil

It’s also common advice to avoid stepping into your borders when the soil is wet. From Organic Gardening’s Marie Iannotti: “Wait until the soil is no longer wet enough to form a ball in your hand before walking on it and compacting it. But don’t wait too long to start your clean up. It’s much easier to cut plants back before the old growth gets tangled up in the new growth…Early spring is the time to take action against weeds with some pro-active weeding. Damp soil makes it much easier to pull young weed seedlings. ”

U. Delaware, (and many others) agree we should “Avoid working soils when they are too moist.” I garden in Maryland, where it’s normally drier in winter than in spring.

Humans at Work

This comment from another Garden Professor group member reminds us that gardeners have needs, too.  Responding to when to do clean-up, she wrote “Usually in early march before it gets too hot and humid – not for the weeds or insects – but for me.”

Another human factor is the great many chores to be done in the spring. Marie Iannotti’s “12 Essential Spring Cleaning Tasks for the Garden” lists not just clean-up and weeding but also pruning, dividing, transplanting, staking, mulching, edging, and I’ll add plant-buying, too.

Humans and Beauty

At the commercial landscape I’ve adopted, the entrance garden on the left versus a less visible area I’m not cleaning up. Photo taken yesterday.

So there are plenty of practical reasons to do clean-up earlier than later – it’s not solely about appearance. But yes, I DO prefer that the borders in my tiny garden look more like the photo above on the left than on the right. But despite going lawn-free in two gardens, replacing them a biodiverse assortment of plants, I’m feeling shamed by language used to characterize anyone sharing my preference. (Even in my tiny front yard or other high-visibility spots.)

For example, “We get it, it’s tough to turn a blind eye to the ‘messy’ garden, especially when gardening magazines, catalogs, and TV ads provide temptation daily. Each spring we beg gardeners and homeowners to press pause and find other ways to occupy their weekends. Instead of disturbing critical habitat, read a book, do a jigsaw puzzle, do your taxes, tidy up the garage, or clean the gutters. While you may be eager to get outside and play in the garden – there will be time enough to toil in the soil before you know it!”

Ugh. And with no mention of the practical reasons for early clean-up, in that link or any I’ve ever found on the subject.

And I’ve read many criticisms of caring “what the neighbors think,” as though that’s a bad thing.  Well, speaking as a townhouse dweller, the closer you live to neighbors, the more important it is to consider them, at least enough to make sure your front yards looks at least cared for, not abandoned. Even the most wildlife-friendly garden designers know to include “signs of care” out of respect for the community – and to avoid trouble with ordinances or HOA rules.

The Information We Need – About the Balancing Act

Before clean-up in Marianne Willburn’s garden.

There are so many factors at play in the clean-up question – what type of leaves they are and how many of them, what plants are being covered by them, the site – in a front yard or in a less visible spot – and so on. Sweeping generalizations like “Leave the Leaves” serve more to admonish or shame gardeners than to help. Heck, even Tallamy acknowledges making exceptions for certain plants. I thank him for that and we need lots more of it – real-world,  real-garden stories from people who actually tend borders and beds, especially in highly visible places. (Remember we’re talking about gardens here, not ecological restoration sites!) 

Some recent examples:

On Margaret Roach’s podcast Uli Lorimer reveals the factors he considers at the Native Plant Trust, which has lots of leaves to deal with because it’s so wooded.  Some plants, like creeping and woodland phlox, need to be uncovered “a little bit” in the springtime. Otherwise, he recommends paying attention to where leaves naturally accumulate, both areas of little swales and trying to plan for plants that don’t mind deep leaf litter. “So if it’s an area that will accumulate maybe 8 or 12 inches of leaves over the winter, we’re going to put things like Solomon’s seal or ferns or something that has strong enough growth that they can push through all of that leaf litter, and they don’t seem to mind.”

Lorimer also tries to find spots “where prevailing wind patterns keep the ground bare and where moss naturally grows, try to help that along and keep those moss patches going and they end up being perfect place to display what botanists like to call belly plants – you know, that you need to get down on your belly to see.” Things like patridgeberry or trailing arbutus – “beautiful, delicate spring charmers that would be utterly lost and smothered if the leaf litter got to be too heavy. ”

And he’s seen the damage caused to plants from too many leaves and resultant leafmold, like the mountain laurels that were in decline when he started working there. “I dug around at the base of the shrubs only to find that they had been buried under 12-14 inches of leafmold. Now we’ve shifted our practices and we rake those and put them somewhere else and the laurels seem to be making a recovery. ”

Lorimer summarizes the dilemma of leaving the leaves thusly: “For some people it looks unkempt or untidy if  you don’t do anything and there’s a middle ground where you can still embrace the psychological intentions and techniques and have a garden that looks like you’re caring for it.” Well said, and insult-free!

Other wildlife advocates, like Kathleen Connolly (mentioned here) avoid accusing gardeners of doing it “wrong” and instead tell us what’s “best for wildlife,” which in the case of leaving the leaves is “Do nothing.” But she offers other less purist options for helping wildlife, ones that acknowledge other factors that influence gardening practices.

It’s even helpful when advocates simply state that generalizations don’t always apply. In her New York Times column “How to Do a more Conscious fall Clean-up,” Margaret Roach asks the right question – how to make a responsible plan that acknowledges both ecology and your horticultural goals? Garden designer Peter Bevacqua tells her that “In beds where early blooming minor bulbs like winter aconite (Eranthis), crocus or snowdrops might not be able to push up through heavy leaves, rake those spots in the fall; in the spring, you won’t be able to do any raking until after the bulbs flower…..Around ornamental plants with a reputation for harboring diseases that can survive in fallen debris — think peonies, roses or fruit trees showing signs of trouble — move spore-filled material away from the immediate area.” He goes on: “Only the formal areas get anything resembling an old-style cleanup.”

More detailed information for helping wildlife

Another Garden Professors commenter suggested that “If you know the burrowing depth and seasonal timing of the life cycles of the beneficial insects that could be living in your border, then that may help determine when to do any maintenance. Perhaps the insects in your region dig deeper than you weed? Or overwinter in bark instead of leaf litter?”

And “myth-buster” Robert Pavlis writes: “Insects emerge from their winter hiding places over a wide range of temperatures and over a several month period. The longer you can wait for cleanup, the better it is for all insects,” but “It is not realistic for most gardeners to wait until all insects have emerged. It will be summer before that happens.”

Like Other Balancing Acts We all Perform

I honestly don’t understand the absolute directives and “right” and “wrong” language used in urging delayed (or no) clean-up, unlike other pro-environment information that tells us what’s ideal but typically stops short of calling behavior that falls short of that “wrong.” We all know it would be best for the climate if we never drove or flew anywhere, yet it’s rare to travelers attacked for falling short of that ideal. ( Famous people are an exception.)

But we gardeners, who typically use our yards for more environmental good than the average homeowner, are judged and insulted if we don’t, essentially, turn our gardens into ecological restoration projects. If we don’t just stop gardening.

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