Why You Should Leave Plant Debris in the Garden This Fall

As gardening season approaches and you begin preparing your garden for winter, you may be tempted to pull out all the dead plants and debris. This year, consider leaving that stuff where it belongs.

Our gardens are more than a sanctuary and a way to feed our family. They are also home to a lot of critters. As we work to create a healthy ecosystem in our garden, knowing what to do with the weather’s winds is just as important as knowing how you treat your garden in the summer.

10 reasons to leave plant debris in the garden

Years ago, gardeners thought it was best to remove plant debris in the garden as fall and winter approached. Now that we have learned more about gardening and the wider ecosystem, we know that this is not necessarily the right strategy.

By leaving plant debris, local insects, pollinators and birds become homes for the winter and a source of food in times of scarcity. It also reduces waste and improves soil fertility.

1. It gives home to the bees

Everyone knows we are witnessing a decline in bee populations across the planet. However, few consider where all of our bee species end up from the cold and predators.

Bees look for places to rest and winter, such as peeling tree bark or a hollow plant trunk.

Making sure you have lots of pollinators in your garden is a big deal. It helps to ensure that your plants produce plenty of fruit, and when we don’t leave plant debris in the garden, we take away natural homes and habitats for our bees.

2. Butterflies come for shelter

Monarch butterflies have a long migration to Mexico for the winter, but many other types of butterflies live and take shelter in dry and safe places. Some overwinter as adults, such as the mourning cloak butterfly, while others overwinter in a chrysalis, such as swallowtail butterflies.

Your garden debris is the perfect home for these butterflies waiting for the cold weather.

Adult butterflies find tree bark or leaf litter to live under until spring. Chrysalis hang from dead plant stems or tucked under soil or litter in the garden.

A complete fall garden cleanup narrows down their winter home options.

3. Ladybug Overwinter in Debris

Did you know that there are 400 species of ladybugs in North America? Most are not classic reds with black polka dots; You can find all kinds of multicolored ladybugs that will make your garden want to call home.

Most ladybug species go into hibernation when temperatures begin to drop, and they spend the colder months tucked away under garden debris or at the base of the plant. Ladybugs overwinter together in groups, sometimes up to a thousand adults at a time.

You want ladybugs in your garden because they eat bad insects, so leaving behind plant debris in the garden gives these insects a safe place to live over the winter.

The good news is that if you house these ladybugs for the winter, they will emerge early in the spring and start controlling the pests right away.

4. Birds look for food in winter

Not all birds fly south in winter; Many live where they live year-round and need a constant source of food. Birds eat insects, and while they are used to scavenging in winter, garden debris gives them a better source of protein-rich insects in the coldest months.

Native birds know how to find hibernating insects hiding on dead plants and inside leaf litter. You give your local birds a delicious winter snack by leaving debris for insects to hide in.

In addition, birds provide another resource by leaving behind seed-filled flower heads in winter. The seeds contain high levels of fats that are essential to a bird’s ability to generate energy and store heat for the colder months.

Instead of cutting back coneflowers and sunflowers, consider leaving them in place.

5. Predatory insects living in the rubble

In addition to ladybugs, other predatory insects live in your garden as well, such as lacewings, big-eyed bugs and ground beetles. Adults and larvae hibernate in winter, sleeping in soil and other places throughout the garden.

Many insects help get rid of other pests in your garden, so keeping predatory insects alive ensures that they will consume those early emerging insects that can cause serious damage.

6. It’s Beautiful

I know old tomato plants may not look pretty, but I love how my garden looks in winter. The snow resting on individual parts of plants and birds is truly a thing of beauty.

7. Decomposed material enriches the soil

Another reason you should leave plant debris in the garden is that eventually, the material decomposes and adds nutrients to the soil. Plant material composts into the soil, adding nitrogen and other nutrients your plants will need in the spring to survive.

Plants don’t necessarily completely decompose during the winter, but when spring comes, you can mix some of the plant debris into the soil, and it will rot over time.

8. Trees fertilize themselves

If you have trees in your garden, you may be tempted to pluck all fallen leaves and get rid of them.

This is a big mistake.

Trees drop leaves around their root zone, and these eventually decompose and add all kinds of nutrients to the soil that your trees need for proper growth.

9. Local Reptiles Need Homes Too

It’s easy to forget that local reptiles and amphibians need homes even in winter. Leaving a pile of wood trimmings in your garden or wood shed gives snakes, lizards and salamanders a place to overwinter.

You might not love snakes; I know I don’t, but they play an important role in your garden’s ecosystem.

10. Reduce waste generation

If you don’t have a compost pile, cleaning up your garden in the fall creates a lot of waste that ends up in landfills across the country.

The EPA estimates that leaves and yard debris generate about 34.7 million tons of waste per year. One of the biggest problems is that yard waste generates methane gas, polluting the air we breathe and mixing acids into the ground that pollute soil and water.

Exception: disease

One major exception exists for leaving plant debris on the ground and that is if you are concerned about plant diseases. Many plant diseases in the garden survive on plant debris. Unless you want to infect your plants in the next growing season, you will need to remove plant debris from infected, diseased plants.

Remember, you don’t have to discard all of the plant debris, especially if you have a large garden. If you live in a neighborhood, the rules may say that you need to remove dead plants; Always check ahead of time.

It may be enough to leave only a few sections untouched and natural for local insects and wildlife.

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