Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

When should you start cleaning up the garden?

garden bed is filled with white, purple and yellow flowers, grasses, shrubs. the dirt is covered with mulch and is surrounded by a rock border
Robyn Puffenbarger
Many of the garden beds at Robyn's home were planned to surround her trees.

In the yard, I love paths with an edge. I am drawn to the visual change from lawn to bed with a sidewalk or rock line. Previously, part of my garden plan was to remove dead stalks in fall, using this material for compost, and I would rake and compost leaves. As I have learned more about what makes a good habitat for insects, my garden plan has changed radically.

My husband and I started laying out beds around the trees. In our backyard, the plan was for ‘tree beds.’ I like the lawn for walking paths. The grass has a great color and texture, so some of it can stay. We used newspaper, mulch, and in fall the leaves to smother the grass. Over time, these tree beds became the foundation of our landscape. Having a place to rake the leaves and leave them alone means overwintering insects have a place to stay, either overwintering as adults, larvae, or eggs.

a wooden garden bench sits next to a garden bed of large green-leafed hostas and mulched with pine needles
Robyn Puffenbarger
A shady bed by neighbor’s building features ferns, hostas, and Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).

Once we had a grass-free base, we could add in plants like spring ephemerals. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) — both natives — went under the trees. The Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) just showed up and it is one of the best additions. With the bloodroot, bluebells, and violets, we had a solid ground cover that weeds could not invade, colorful flowers across a nice time span, and we watched the Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) numbers dramatically increase in our yard. The common violet is the host plant for 30 species of fritillary butterflies!

garden beds with leaves, pine needles, and grass paths in early fall
Robyn Puffenbarger
Robyn shares a look at her garden beds in the early fall.

In fall, I do not clean up the stalks or stems left over from perennial growth. This is a huge time savings. Instead, I leave what was left from last year until the new growth is catching up. I asked the entomologist at Blandy Farm when I should clean up to help insects. The answer was as long as I could stand to leave it alone, leave it alone! There is no date or temperature that signals all is ready for an annual clean up – the insects are coming out at all different times and temperatures. So, I have started a regime of leaving the stalks and stems as long as possible for the overwintering insects. I hope to see an increase in insects, like what we observed with the fritillary butterfly.

For more information on a backyard habitat:

Happy spring!
- Dr. Robyn Puffenbarger, a VHG co-host, Bridgewater College Professor, and Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener

VHG Co-Host, Professor at Bridgewater College, and a Central Shenandoah Valley Master Gardener