yes, you heard that right -- put down that rake and let the leaves fall!
1. The Native Bees: Many of North America’s 3500-plus species of native bees need a place to spend the winter that’s protected from cold and predators. They may hunker down under a piece of peeling tree bark, or they may stay tucked away in the hollow stem of a bee balm plant or an ornamental grass. Some spend the winter as an egg or larvae in a burrow in the ground. All native bees are important pollinators, and when we remove every last overwintering site by cutting everything down and completely cleaning up the garden, we’re doing ourselves no favor. We need these bees, and our gardens can provide them with much-needed winter habitat.
2. The Butterflies: While the monarch flies south to overwinter in Mexico, most other butterflies stay put and take shelter somewhere dry and safe until spring. Some butterflies, like the mourning cloak, comma, question mark, and Milbert’s tortoise shell, overwinter as adults. They nestle into rock fissures, under tree bark, or in leaf litter until the days grow longer again and spring arrives. Butterflies that overwinter in a chrysalis include the swallowtail family, the cabbage whites and the sulphurs. Many of these chrysalises can be found either hanging from dead plant stems or tucked into the soil or leaf litter. You can guess what a fall gardening clean up does to them. And still other butterfly species, such as the red-spotted purple, the viceroy, and the meadow fritillary, spend the winter as a caterpillar rolled into a fallen leaf or inside the seed pod of a host plant. If we cut down and clean up the garden, we are quite possibly eliminating overwintering sites for many of these beautiful pollinators (and perhaps even eliminating the insects themselves!). Another excellent way you can help butterflies is to build a caterpillar garden for them; here’s how. Declining butterfly populations are one of the best reasons not to clean up the garden.
3. The Ladybugs: North America is home to over 400 different ladybug species, many of which are not red with black polka-dots. While the introduced Asian multicolored ladybug comes into our homes for the winter and becomes quite a nuisance, none of our native ladybug species have any interest in spending the winter inside of your house. Most of them enter the insect world’s version of hibernation soon after the temperatures drop and spend the colder months tucked under a pile of leaves, nestled at the base of a plant, or hidden under a rock. Most overwinter in groups of anywhere from a few individuals to thousands of adults. Ladybugs are notorious pest eaters, each one consuming dozens of soft-bodied pest insects and insect eggs every day. Leaving the garden intact for the winter means you’ll get a jump start on controlling pests in the spring. Skipping a fall gardening clean up is one important way to help these beneficial insects.
4. The Birds: Insect-eating birds, like chickadees, wrens, titmice, nuthatches, pheobes, and bluebirds, are very welcome in the garden because they consume thousands of caterpillars and other pest insects as they raise their young every gardening season. Not cleaning up the garden means there will be more protein-rich insects available to them during the coldest part of the year. These birds are quite good at gleaning “hibernating” insects off of dead plant stems and branches, and out of leaf litter. The more insect-nurturing habitat you have, the greater the bird population will be. Your feathered friends will also appreciate feasting on the seeds and berries they can collect from intact perennial, annual, and shrub stems. Song birds are one of the best reasons skip the garden clean up!
5. The Predatory Insects: Ladybugs aren’t the only predatory insects who spend the winter in an intact garden. Assassin bugs, lacewings, big-eyed bugs, minute pirate bugs, damsel bugs, ground beetles, and scores of other pest-munching predatory insects spend the winter “sleeping” in your garden as either adults, eggs, or pupae. They’re one of the best reasons not to clean up the garden in the fall because they help you control pests. To have a balanced population of these predatory insects, you have to have winter habitat; when spring arrives, they’ll be better able to keep early-emerging pests in check if they’ve spent the winter on-site, instead of over in the neighbor’s yard.
6. The People: If the previous five reasons aren’t enough to inspire you to hold off on cleaning up the garden, I’ll add one final reason to the list: You. There is so much beauty to be found in a winter garden. Snow resting on dried seed pods, berries clinging to bare branches, goldfinches flitting around spent sunflowers, juncos hopping beneath old goldenrod fronds, frost kissing the autumn leaves collected at the base of a plant, and ice collected on blades of ornamental grasses. At first, you might not consider yourself to be one of the reasons not to clean up the garden, but winter is a lovely time out there, if you let it be so.
Delaying your garden’s clean up until the spring is a boon for all the creatures living there. Instead of heading out to the garden with a pair of pruning shears and a rake this fall, wait until next April. By then, all the critters living there will be emerging from their long winter nap. And even if they haven’t managed to get out of bed by the time you head out to the garden, most of them will still manage to find their way out of a loosely layered compost pile before it begins to decompose. Do Mother Nature a big favor and save your garden clean up until the spring.