MINNEAPOLIS — We like to tidy up and button down before winter. Come fall, we rake our yards of leaves, bag them and haul them away. We yank out all of our annuals and cut perennials down to the ground.
While that may make us feel good, it isn’t good for our gardens — or the birds and pollinators that populate them and the world beyond our own backyards.
“I wish people would get over this idea that everything has to look so pristine,” says Val Cunningham, a Twin Cities birding expert. “If you’re cutting back your garden, you’re doing nothing for the insects, and if you’re doing nothing for the insects, you’re doing nothing for the birds.”
Many perennials have seed heads that provide birds food during the winter. And any plants left standing can also catch the snow and provide overwintering birds places to nestle out of the cold.
But it goes beyond helping birds, according to Erin Buchholz, integrated pest management specialist for the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
“The beautiful, picturesque, storybook lawns and gardens might look pretty, but it’s harmful to our environment,” she says.
Garden plants left intact provide winter habitat for several species of bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Some lay eggs in hollow stems, others overwinter in garden matter and leaf piles. If we clear-cut our gardens, “we let down bees and butterflies when they need us most,” Buchholz says.
Raking the yard completely free of leaves deprives plants of a natural (and free!) insulating mulch that can protect your plants from harsh winter cold. When those leaves break down, they feed the soil.
What’s a green-leaning gardener to do in the fall? As little as possible.
- Leave annuals and perennials standing, unless they are diseased.
- Rake (or blow) leaves into your garden beds. Get out the hose and give those leaves a good soaking. That’ll help them stay in place and will also give the garden a nice shot of moisture.
- Do pull spent vegetables as soon as they’re done producing. (Many are disease-prone.)
Come spring, you’ll likely find garden cleanup much easier. And you may just notice that the birds, bees and butterflies seem happier.