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4 reasons to hold off on fall garden cleanup


For no good reason at all, there is still an annual debate about when you should clean up your garden. Well debate no more, because as far as I’m concerned, the answer is that you should do what’s best for you. But there are some compelling reasons to sit tight until spring to clean up your garden.

allium millennium standing for fall
Allium ‘Millennium’ holds up all winter with golden yellow, hollow stems, that are friendly to overwintering insects.


Letting plants stand for winter provides a host of benefits for the critters that you share your garden with (whether you realize they are there or not). Birds forage from seedheads, mammals find shelter, and insects hole up in nooks and crannies, or hollow stems. A thriving ecosystem is a boon for any garden, not to mention the environment in general.

Those same alliums look even better with bit of frosting-like snow.


“Dead” plants can be beautiful. Shades of yellow and brown that catch the sun just so accent textures that rise above dull, dormant lawns or snow. Snow sits on seed heads like adorable little caps. OK, maybe that’s all a little romantic, but if you’ve ever toiled through a long, bleak winter, you know that anything that makes the gray outdoors a little bit more interesting is a good thing. Your plants are up for the job.

Ornamental grasses like this Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ offer all the benefits of other plants left to stand over winter, with the addition of movement.


Snow is an excellent insulator, and anytime there is a big shift in temperatures in winter, plants fare much better with a blanket of snow protecting them from those extremes. Standing plant material helps snow collect around the crown of a plant—the most delicate part—and adds extra protection on the root zone. And when temperatures start warming, that snow melts and provides a nice drink for plants.

Early snowfall? Take it as one more sign to hold off until spring to clean up the garden.


Embrace your inner lazy gardener and take the easy way out by cleaning up in spring. There’s less plant material to clean up in spring as some has been dealt with by animals or simple already broken down into a state that doesn’t need cleaning up. The plant material that is left tends to be light, crispy and brittle so it can over simply be broken off and should it need to be moved, it’s much lighter than it was in spring. You can leave the wheelbarrow parked behind the garage if you employ the “chop and drop” method in which you simply chop the standing material up into pieces and let it lie where it lands. 

From a functional standpoint, it’s a perfect mulch, returning nutrients right back to where they came from, covering the soil around plants and quick to break down. It lacks a bit in the aesthetics department, but since it breaks down quickly it doesn’t take long for the garden to look perfectly tidy again, especially as new foliage covers the worst bits. 

There’s no law that says you have to choose the same strategy for your entire garden. I like to do a pretty thorough cleanup on any parts of the garden that immediately border a walkway or patio that will need to be shoveled when the snow flies. If there are plants that have flopped over in an unappealing fashion, I don’t feel bad given them the chop in fall. 

So plant some bulbs, pick some apples or carve some pumpkins. Enjoy autumn without stressing over having to clean up the garden. 

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