The Spring Cleanup Dilemma

Happy Hellebores

Last autumn, we gave ourselves permission to skip the “fall cleanup” for a good reason. Leaving perennial stalks and foliage provides a habitat for overwintering pupae or hibernating adult beneficial insects, such as native bees, lacewings and parasitic wasps. Also, the fallen leaves can be a great winter mulch. The question I’m asking myself now is… when is it okay to begin the spring cleanup, and what should I not disturb?

The naturalists are telling us to wait until we are well into an extended stretch of 50+ degree temps before cutting back stalks. Arghh!! Here in New England that could be mid-May! I don’t think this wait needs to be a blanket rule. Every garden situation is different.

A month ago, I had removed the decaying hellebore stems.

I noticed during the March garden inspection that the Hellebores were showing signs of fungal problems from leaf spot, downy mildew and gray mold, especially on the old foliage, no doubt from being buried under wet leaves. Note: most of our Hellebores are planted in the garden under our ancient swamp white oak tree. In this case,  the blanket of wet oak leaves was not helping. I didn’t want the emerging flower shoots to succumb to fungal diseases, of course, so the leaves were removed and the stems cut back.

A carpet of decaying fine textured Japanese Maple leaves

Emerging Corydalis solida and a Woodland Peony that planted itself!

In a different garden area,  a carpet of fallen leaves from a Katsura Japanese Maple wasn’t causing any problems that I could see. The Snowdrops and Crocus pushed through early on,  and the Corydalis solida are not having any problems. My take on this … the smaller, fine textured foliage of the Japanese maple is allowing more aeration under their cover. I suspect that I won’t have a problem leaving things be, for now. I will wait to cut the stems of nearby Japanese Mint Shrub, Leucosceptrum japonicum. However, I did cut back the Epimedium foliage so we wouldn’t have to look at the fresh new flowers shrouded among old brown leaf stems.

Japanese Mint Shrub stems are going to stay for now.

Our sunny pollinator display beds presented more of a problem…many plants in this bed grow tall, i.e. Silphium, Eupatorium, Helianthus, Rudbeckia, and their split and broken stems were scattered at all angles…the dilemma being that this is pollinator garden after all, but it was such a tangle! I decided to whack down the stalks, but made sure to leave stems with praying mantis egg sacks which of course I could see. I placed the cut stems in a pile about 20 yards away at the edge of our woodland near the compost piles. Hopefully any larva or emerging adults will realize they are close to their host plants.

This year is going to be a study on how this partial spring cleanup plays out. Will I even notice the fallen leaves once summer comes and plants are flourishing? (Probably not. ) Will I still see all the beneficial insects that have found refuge in our gardens in past years? I think so, but it will be a year to pay attention.

What approaches are you taking to have a happy garden as well as preserve a healthy habitat for our beneficial wildlife? Please share.

14 thoughts on “The Spring Cleanup Dilemma”

  1. We are doing the same here in Concord, watching spots of color emerge from the leaf cover – snowdrops, winter aconite, hellebore – and cutting tall stalks and largely leaving them in place, to be hidden by emerging shoots. The look is a little shaggy and undefined, but the garden has strong bones.

  2. I am so happy you posted this. I’m blundering through the same situation. For the first time, I did not rake the leaves or “clean up” in my small urban garden last fall and did not know what to do this spring. I decided to remove about half of the leaves, and I cut down the dead perennial stalks at the same time I pruned the roses. So I’ve already made some mistakes. Oh well — #1001 on my list of gardening mistakes over the years.

  3. I also left my leaves last year, mostly silver maple, which are on the large size. I did rake piles and mow some after a disappointing previous year of heavy blankets of wet leaves snuffing out much new growth and preventing the reseeding of certain annuals I like. This was a winning formula here in Virginia. The leaves are almost already completely covered with new spring growth of eranthis, phlox, pulmonaria, creeping jenny, and crowns of perennials that are quickly taking on size. I have covered any large areas with fresh chopped leaf mulch which gives a finised look. The annuals are all well up enough to not mind the mulch. I just cut back all my twigs too and things look really good. I am pleased too that I could leave some bare soil for ground nesting bees. I think I found a new strategy! thanks always for you great posts.

  4. Michal, Don’t we all blunder sometimes? I think we learn best from trial and error. I’m going to observe this spring and summer, and note what works best.

  5. Indira, We only have moss in our wettest low lying areas, sounds like you have more than ever. I’m quite sure the ephemerals will push through. I only worry that too wet a soil might rot the bulbs.

  6. I did this too. In the past we have raked the leaves and dried stalks, shredded them, and used them for mulch after adding compost. Vey labor intensive. I’m wondering if it’s necessary to add the compost, but I suppose it depends on the plant.
    Thank you.

  7. Hello, I’m in Bristol RI. I also left everything “as is” since the fall (this is second year I left everything up) and just looked away at the crocosmia stalks and the ornamental grass leaves lying Willy Nilly in the garden beds. And then I thought,” Why am I leaving up absolutely every single plant stalk ? So I began thinking,” Maybe some plants are not as useful, or are not used at all, by pollinators” Hoping to find a “ list” of useful plants, my initial research unfortunately turned up no definite list, but seemed to lead me to the conclusion that the natives are the plants that are best left standing, as makes sense. I also found info indicating that the plants with larger, hollow or pithy stems are the ones used by pollinators for egg laying and are the best to be left standing. I am working towards being more judicious in what I leave standing in the garden over the winter.

  8. Glad to hear other people are confused. Some areas I leave the oak leaves – and will see what can survive? rhus aromatica? blueberries? viburnums? but in other areas I take some layers off and this year I might make a hedgerow of extra leaves/branches behind the garden? it is confusing – such different ideas since I got a plant science degree many years ago – but it makes sense…

  9. Martha D. Our training on how a garden should be tended is now challenged. Compulsive neatniks (not I, ha!) are going to struggle. We just have to hold onto the vision all the black wasps, butterflies and hover bees flitting among summer blossoms.

  10. I’m in Portland, Oregon and have also been experimenting with relaxed cleanup over the past few years. Last year though we ended up with a lot of damage on the small bushes (euonymus fortunei) and spring starflower foliage. Turns out the leaves were a great spot for cut worms to hang out all fat and happy from feeding on the plants around them. I have a very small yard, so if I notice the telltale bites, I’ll look through the leaves below to find the culprit(s). Any wisdom for creating an environment preferentially welcoming to beneficials over pests?

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