Consider the Pollinators: Don’t Clean Up the Garden Too Early

Consider the Pollinators: Don’t Clean Up the Garden Too Early
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Consider the Pollinators: Don’t Clean Up the Garden Too Early

Leave It Untidy for Bees, Birds, Beneficials and Pollinators

The old school of thought was to cut back perennials, grasses, and other plants in the garden in fall when they went dormant. Mostly this was done because the thought of an “untidy” garden in the winter was a no, no. However, recent studies and schools of thought are showing this is not a good idea. Many, birds, pollinators, butterflies, and beneficial insects that will help you keep pests under control need that untidy garden as a habitat and food source during the winter.

Native Bees

Native bees need a place in winter that’s protected from cold and predators. This can be things like leaves that provide cover for them when they burrow in the ground for the winter. Old logs that are hollow or have crannies are also a great source of shelter for them. You can simply pile some branches in a corner somewhere for the winter to create a habitat, too.


Not all butterflies migrate south for the winter like monarchs. Many will stay in the garden and need piles of leaves, tree bark, or even dead plants stems to provide them shelter for the winter.


Many birds are very good at helping us keep insects under control during the growing season. During the winter they still need food and while bird feeders are excellent, birds also love seed heads and berries on perennials and shrubs.

Beneficial Insects

Beneficial insects are critical contributors to keeping the pest insects under your control in your garden during the growing season. A key to having this army of beneficial insects to help you do so is not only attracting them, but also keeping them in your garden.

What Are the Keys to Keeping Beneficials in the Garden?

Basically, there are three things you need to keep the good guys around. Food, shelter, and water. Food is in the form of early blooming perennials. Water means a source of clean water without chemicals in it. Shelter is for the winter and can be things like old logs, leaves left on the ground, and what is known as “rough foliage”,

What is “Rough Foliage”?

Rough foliage is simply the top growth of perennials and grasses after the plant has gone dormant for the winter. While it may look brown and untidy, it’s a vital key to not only attracting but keeping beneficial insects in your garden over the winter. Then in spring they will emerge ready to help you keep unwanted pests under control. And, as mentioned, many dormant perennials contain seed heads which are a rich source of winter food for birds.

What Happens if I Cut the Foliage Back in Fall?

Many of those insects will be overwintering in that foliage. If you cut it back and throw it away or destroy it, you will literally be throwing them out with it. Then, come spring, when pests like aphids arrive, beneficial insects like lady bugs and hoverflies will not be around to keep the bad guys under control. Leaving you with potential plant damage or the need to resort to chemicals that could harm other good insects like pollinators and butterflies.

When Should I Cut Back the Foliage?

A good rule of thumb is about 4-6 weeks before your last frost date. You can often find that by searching “last frost date” and including your zip code. One of nature’s signs is when the new growth on the perennials starts to emerge from the ground. If you grow roses this also about the time you want to prune you should them.

What Should I Do With the Cut Material?

You can discard it, but if you have an area where you can leave it in a pile for a few more weeks it’s a good idea to do so. This is especially important with plants that have hollow stems like echinacea. Many insects will overwinter in those hollow stems and may still be there. Recommendations are to set those aside and then lay them back in the garden until spring has truly arrived and you once again see active insect activity. Once you see that activity then it’s okay to discard or compost the material.

What Kinds of Plants are Good to Have in the Garden for Rough Foliage?

Almost any plant will do but let’s focus on a few that are favorite overwintering homes for beneficial insects.


Grasses are excellent habitats for insects to overwinter in. Their dense foliage gives them plenty of shelter from predators, wind and cold. There are many grasses to choose from but make sure you grow ones suitable for your area and are non-invasive.

Add Plants with Hollow Stems in Winter

Generally, these are plants with upright flower stems. Echinacea, monarda, Joe Pye weed, penstemon and rudbeckia are just a few. Even shrubs like hydrangeas can be source of hollow stems. Insects love to spend the winter safely tucked inside.

Plants that Have a Good, Dense Winter Habitat

Like grasses these will provide a good place for insects to overwinter in. Low growing plants like aster, nepeta and lamb’s ears are some good examples.

Make Sure You Have Food for Them in Spring

Early blooming plants with good nectar are another key to keeping beneficial insects in your garden. Plants from the umbelliferae and brassicacea families are examples. This can include Queen Anne’s lace, fennel, dill and mustard. Also plants like candytuft and early blooming phlox. Leave an area of the lawn unmoved so white clover can take hold. All of these are great plants have around so when the beneficials emerge from the winter habitat you’ve created and left to overwinter in they have something to eat.

Plant These Plants in the Garden or Close to It

Whenever possible, place plants for winter habitat and spring food right in your garden or close to it. That keeps beneficial insects where you want them and when pests like aphids appear they will be ready to help you keep them under control. If a plant is invasive you can always plant it in a pot instead of directly in the garden.

So Leave It, Don’t Clean It

While having an untidy garden over winter may bother some from an aesthetic point, it’s vital to so many bees, butterflies, pollinators and beneficial insects. With much of their native habitat disappearing our gardens can become that space. Mimicking that natural habitat is a way we can help them survive, thrive and in the case of beneficial insects help us during the growing season by providing in house pest control.