Conventional wisdom says clean up, clear away and cover your veggie garden in winter. But as our Editor-at-Large Therese Ciesinski points out, with ornamentals, it may be best to take completely different approach.
My previous post explained how to clean up and clear out your vegetable garden for the winter. I now suggest the opposite for your ornamental beds: leave them pretty much alone. Skip the cutting back, the raking, the hauling of plant debris. Give yourself, and your garden, a break.
Why? Many of the plants in your perennial garden provide food and shelter to insects, birds, amphibians and other wildlife, not just during the growing season, but in fall and winter, too. And winter is when these resources are most needed. Cleaning out your garden makes it look nice and tidy, but it drives away or kills creatures that help keep your garden a healthy and functioning ecosystem.
Leave certain plants standing because they provide food or cover for birds. Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), coneflowers (Echinacea), perennial sunflowers (Helianthus), Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium) and native grasses are some of the most popular with the bird set. The grasses also make great hideouts for beneficial insects and other wildlife.
What should you cut down? Any plants that are diseased. Peonies often get botrytis while phlox is stricken with powdery mildew. If these plants are left standing or fallen foliage isn’t removed, there will be spores in the soil that will infect them the next year. My roses are prone to blackspot, so once the plants go dormant, I pick off every leaf and put them in the trash. Do not compost diseased plants, your compost pile might not heat up enough to kill the pathogens, and you’ll just spread them on your garden in the spring.
So the plants stay standing. But what else should you leave lying around? How about
downed trees, twigs and sticks, rocks, vines, and brush piles. They’ll shelter or feed insects, birds, snakes, salamanders, frogs, and small mammals. Some queen bees need places to hide above ground, others nest below.
And leave the leaves, lots and lots of leaves. There’s a whole world eating and sleeping under leaf litter, including ground beetles, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, and pill bugs. They’ll chew on this organic matter all winter and enrich your soil. Praying mantises and butterflies will leave egg cases and chrysalises.
Two more reasons to leave your garden a beautiful mess: intact plants gather snow, which helps protect their crowns, especially plants that may not be completely hardy in your area. And a garden outlined in frost or covered in snow feeds us aesthetically. I find it as exquisite to look at as one in full summer bloom. Sure, it may not be awash with color, but underneath it is very much alive.
Therese Ciesinski, Garden Variety’s Editor-at-Large, is the longtime former editor of Organic Gardening magazine. She has won multiple awards from the Garden Writers Association and has lectured across the U.S. on gardening, horticulture and living an organic lifestyle. A New York University graduate, Therese has been a master gardener in both Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. She lives in a little log cabin next to a trout stream in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, where she maintains a shade-shrouded garden. She loves roses but her sunlight-challenged property has left her trying to fall for hostas instead. She enjoys home renovation projects, travel and is a self-confessed “picker” who buys and sells antiques and vintage finds, especially industrial objects.
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There is something about a garden in rest, covered with a blanket of white snow.