An Ecological Fall Cleanup

I mentioned in an earlier post how the summer was for enjoying the garden, but the work would start up again in the fall and winter. Well, that time has arrived.

Over the years my approach to fall clean-up has changed substantially. Now I rely heavily on the principles of ecological gardening, which focus on what the garden and its wildlife need to be ready for spring and winter, rather than what I want it to look like. My fall/winter gardens don’t look as clean and manicured as the traditional fall cleanups provide – but then, neither do my spring and summer gardens, as I am aiming for a more casual and naturalistic look.

Here are the principles I follow:

Leave as much organic matter behind as possible. This is the way natural plant communities work – leaves and stems will break down and become nutrients for the soil next spring. This means no cutbacks or deadheading, just leaving all the remains of the perennials right there in the garden. By spring most of this will be decomposed and after the new growth emerges will not be visible at all.

These stems and florescences from little bluestem (Schisachyrium scoparium) will stay up all winter.

Ensure winter habitats and food for the wildlife. Insects in particular over-winter in the organic debris in the garden and in hollow perennial stems. Birds and others scavenge seeds left behind; this is another major reason to leave organic matter in the garden. The time to cut back on any remaining stems is in March, to get the garden ready for new spring growth. Because it is still cold for bees to have emerged from the stems, the “chop and drop” technique works well – break or cut the stems off, then break them into pieces and scatter them on the ground. Insects will still emerge in their normal timing and will re-populate the garden in the spring.

The leaves from the white wood aster (Euribia divaricata)on the left will fall into the duff under the wild strawberry. The stems from the aster and the hairgrass (Descchampsia flexuuosa) on the right will snap right off in the spring.

Decide how to handle seeds. Native plants usually have seeds, and the choice about what to do with them should be make deliberately. Leaving it up to nature is one choice I often make – birds might eat the seeds, or they might fall and germinate next year. Another is cutting the seed-heads off and scattering the seed in another part of the garden. Or if a plant already abounds in the garden, cutting the seed-heads off and disposing of them might be in order.

The spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata) is a short-lived perennial, so I make sure to cut off the seedheads after the seed has matured and scatter seeds all around the garden bed for next year.

Protect against winter damage by ensuring all bare ground and cold-sensitive areas are covered with mulch. Leaving behind all the organic matter usually takes care of this, but in newly planted areas and the vegetable garden special attention might be needed. This year I can’t find bales of the straw I usually use, so I’m improvising with cut-down asparagus and evergreen boughs that came down in the cyclone nor’easter.

Learn to enjoy the winter look of gray and brown, bare stems and branches. These elements, when left behind, provide visual interest all winter.

Dried seed head of Queen Anne’s lace, a volunteer this summer.


  1. Hey Cathy,
    Love the message of your blog today, showing the seed heads!!
    Also wanted to let you know that I think what you’ve labeled little bluestem is Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii.
    This is little bluestem



  2. Thanks very much Cathy. I am just about to issue instructions to my landscaper for fall (and I have radically cut back their services from last year). Not sure they need to do anything at all! They asked if I needed a special post nor’easter clean up and I said no.


    • Hi Carolyn, it is very freeing to do things the ecological way, isn’t it? If it weren’t for the invasives and the vegetable garden, my fall chores list would be very short!


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