Here’s my suggestion for the winter clean up of 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.
Here’s 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 makes your garden look nice and tidy, but it drives away or kills creatures that help keep it 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, 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 aboveground, others nest below ground.
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.