For years, horticulturists recommended cleaning up and cutting back plants in the fall as best practices to reduce recurrences of pest and disease issues, but we know so much more now — and we know better. In this video, I explain the benefits of leaving the leaves and plant debris all winter.
These days, we know that all those leaves that drop in fall form a layer of vital habitat and food for insects that prey on pests and pollinate our crops. Likewise, various beneficial insects, including many solitary bees, prefer to overwinter inside the hollow stems of spent herbaceous perennials, and the seed heads on those plants provide food for birds throughout winter.
It’s understandable that gardeners would want to tidy up their landscapes by removing stray leaves and dead growth. I get it. But when you consider the benefits to insects, birds and other wildlife, leaving the leaves and allowing the stems and seed heads to remain standing becomes a much easier decision. And you’ll enjoy the winter interest that seed heads and the birds that come to visit them provide. The stems are a stark and alluring contrast to the vacancies or white snow of winter.
The layer of leaves and other plant debris that accumulates on the soil surface over the growing season and fall is called the duff layer. This layer is an active place for the organisms that make up the soil food web and is an important habitat for caterpillars that emerge as butterflies in spring. A good duff layer will also improve soil quality around your plants and promote the proliferation of beneficial soil organisms. The decaying leaves and other organic matter will help the soil naturally feed your plants.
When leaves fall where they simply can’t stay put all winter, such as on a path or driveway, the next best thing to do next to leaving them is to retain them on your property someplace else. Bagging up and disposing of leaves in a landfill or even in a municipal composting facility is a waste of a valuable resource for your garden. Close the loop by moving leaves to your garden beds to serve as mulch as they also host and feed insects for the winter. Organic mulch will continuously feed the soil below, reducing or eliminating the need for supplemental fertilizer.
When we are in such a rush to get leaves out of our sight and off our properties, we deny pollinating insects and other creatures the opportunity to overwinter on the land that we steward. Leaving the leaves can make such a difference for them.
Mother Nature has a great plan, and if we just adhere to that, it’s less work for us and a much better outcome for the environment.
Want to create a landscape that supports beneficials and other wildlife? Consider planting native ornamental grasses. Learn more in my eBook Growing and Using Ornamental Grasses in the Landscape.
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Links & Resources
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, AeroGarden, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, PittMoss, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, National Wildlife Federation and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.