As the days become colder and flowers fade and turn brown, many gardeners begin prepping their spaces for winter by cutting down spent blooms, stems, and leaves. However, by leaving the plants intact, gardeners can provide a variety of benefits to area insects and birds over the cold winter months.  

Retaining spent stems and leaves can help provide shelter for our feathered friends, as birds use the dried leaves and stalks to build their nests. Additionally, dead plants, and native wildflowers in particular, provide a valuable food source for birds who eat the seedheads. Doug Conley, MBGNA Garden Coordinator shares: We leave the coneflower, rudbeckia, and other seedheads up in the Gateway Garden because the finches, among other birds, flock to this space to eat! It’s wonderful to watch them flit about before we open.

While honey bees form hives, most other species of bees and other pollinators rely on the environment for shelter. Providing this space is important, as Michigan is home to more than 400 kinds of bees! Bees (and other pollinators) rely on spent garden plants to survive over the winter, often turning to stems and leaves for hibernation spots. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has recognized that “The availability of nesting and overwintering habitat is one of the most important factors influencing populations of native bees and other beneficial insects.

In addition to proving food and shelter to birds and insects, fallen leaves add valuable organic material to compost piles – they enrich garden beds and can serve as mulch.   Your own plants will thrive as this rich, organic material breaks down into compost, increasing organic matter, and improving soil texture. 

Just as keeping plant and leaf material in your garden for the winter is important, so is the timing of clean-up in the spring. In order to give hibernating species a chance to emerge, it is recommended that gardeners wait until temps are reliably above 50 in the spring before clearing the prior year’s spent plants away.  

This new way of thinking about our gardens may involve a shift in what we consider beautiful and valuable in our garden spaces (though there is a lot that can be said about the beauty of frost-covered stems in winter!), and as we move to recognize ourselves as active participants within the natural world, this shift becomes salient.

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