Image above: honeybee on autumn aster

If you've ever feel like saying to a neighbor who is pruning his garden for winter, “wait, don’t cut that!” you're on the right track. It has somehow become a part of gardening tradition that when fall arrives it is time to cut things back and then clean up the garden. Maybe for the sake of our native pollinators this is a habit that is better broken.

How to clean up a garden differs for every gardener with a patch of land, so we are all well advised to ponder on how we can best serve our pollinator residents before we start prepping our land this year. Many beneficial insects like certain bees, moths and butterflies stay in our gardens throughout the winter, hoping to survive. They need strong overwintering homes that will protect them from the elements. Stems, branches and fallen leaves that are left in place can make the difference between survival or perishing to many such insects.

Don’t rake it all up. Make sure you allow fallen leaves to remain around the landscape because they make for ideal insulation for moths and butterflies, according to Kelly Allsup, horticulture educator at University of Illinois Extension.

In the case of some species, like the black swallowtail butterfly, it is hard to tell the difference between a brown chrysalis and a withered old fallen leaf. They feed on your carrots, parsley, dill and fennel to overwinter. If this caterpillar doesn’t survive, gardens will be devoid of these stunning large, black iridescent butterflies that flutter from bloom to bloom.  

Leaves kill grass if they are left to rot on it, so clear the lawns but leaves that fall into flowerbeds, graveled areas and containers should be left there. Watch for insect infestations and disease and clean up if you see signs of either.

This 5:42-minute new video by GrowVeg shows some great tips on autumn garden preparation:



Don’t cut back perennial flowers. Even if leaves are browned from the frost, these plants are still hosts to living creatures. According to Allsup, small orange butterflies with black lines, patches and spots stay close to their host plants like coneflowers, sunflowers and black-eyed Susans.

Carpenter bees and other native bee species like to nest in the pith of stems and they truly appreciate it if gardeners cut the stem tips for them, so it is easier to crawl inside and get cozy. It is best to wait until late spring, if ever, to cut back these dead stems and foliage will grow up around them in the meantime.

Gardeners who wish to help bees overwinter should cut their perennials back to 12-18 inches and spread large chunks of cut foliage around the garden. This way nesting bees can stay put for the winter in new snug homes without being accidentally thrown into a pile of compost.

Leave shrubs wild. Pruning shrubs and trimming large shrubs like willow in fall is not good timing. They could hold viceroy or red-spotted purple caterpillars, which overwinter in a protective cone called a hibernaculum that looks like a leaf.

Don’t haul away logs or trees. Unless it is absolutely necessary. If you can’t leave the entire tree in your garden, at least saw off a few logs where bees can make nests to overwinter in.

Don’t kill the weeds! This is never a good idea, in any season. Any weeds are likely to be beneficial food for early bees and butterflies. But some weeds are so pretty that it might surprise you they are considered weeds… like violets, dandelions, common plantain and blue violets. Sometimes early blooming weeds are all that bees have to keep them alive in early spring when trees have not begun to flower yet. Your garden is a buffet to caterpillars, which eat your plants, and bees and butterflies, that seek out your flowers.

The one part of your garden that you may need to totally clean up is your vegetable garden, so there is less chance of disease carrying over to the new spring season. Plant pathogens can overwinter on plant debris like infected flowers, fruits, leaves and stems, so when you remove these you curb disease.

Take care of your tools before winter. Fall is the perfect time to clean off your equipment, remove caked soil from shovels, hoes and clear leaves off rakes. Wipe off metals with an oily cloth or WD-40. Sand and oil wooden handles that are dried out, so they don’t crack. Wash and dry your tools, sharpen any blades that need sharpening, and store them away in a dry protected place like a shed. Drain your hoses and coil them or place them flat so they retain their shape and substance.

All this saves you money in the long run and will get you off to a high-performance start in spring.