Why You Should Leave Plant Debris in the Garden This Fall

As gardening season winds down and you start preparing your garden for the winter, you might be tempted to take out all of the dead plants and debris. This year, consider leaving that stuff right where it is.

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

10 Reasons to Leave Plant Debris in The Garden

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

Leaving plant debris gives local insects, pollinators, and birds a home for the winter and sources of food during times of scarcity. It also reduces waste and improves soil fertility.

1. It Gives Bees a Home

Everyone knows that we are seeing bee populations drop throughout the planet. However, few people consider where all of our bee species overwinter from the cold and predators.

Bees look for places to rest and overwinter, like peeling tree bark or a hollow stem of a plant.

Making sure that you have plenty of pollinators in your garden is a big deal. It helps to ensure your plants end up with plenty of fruits, and when we don’t leave plant debris in the garden, we take away the 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 stay put and take shelter somewhere dry and safe. Some overwinter as adults, such as the mourning cloak butterfly, while others overwinter in a chrysalis, like swallowtail butterflies.

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

Adult butterflies find tree bark or leaf litter to stay under until spring arrives. The chrysalises hang from dead plant stems or tuck underneath the soil or litter in the garden.

A complete fall garden clean-up reduces their winter home options.

3. Ladybugs Overwinter in Debris

Did you know that there are 400 species of ladybugs in North America? Most aren’t the classic red with black polka dots; you can find all kinds of multicolored ladybugs that want to call your garden home.

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

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

The good thing is that if you give these ladybugs a winter home, they’ll emerge quickly in the spring and start controlling pests immediately.

4. Birds Find Food in the Winter

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

Native birds know how to find hibernating insects that are hiding on the dead plants and inside of leaf litter. You give your local birds yummy winter snacks by leaving debris for insects to hide.

Also, leaving behind flower heads full of seeds in the winter provides birds with another resource. Seeds contain high levels of fat that are necessary for a bird’s ability to produce energy and store heat for the colder months.

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

5. Predatory Insects Live in the Debris

Besides ladybugs, other predatory insects live in your garden as well, like lacewings, big-eyed bugs, and ground beetles. The adults and larvae hibernate in the winter, sleeping in the soil and other places throughout the garden.

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

6. It’s Beautiful

I know that old tomato plants might not look beautiful, but I love how my garden looks in the winter. The snow resting on different parts of the plants and birds hopping around in the stark white is truly a thing of beauty.

7. Decomposing Materials Enrich the Soil

Another reason that you should leave plant debris in the garden is that, eventually, the materials decompose and add nutrients to the soil. Plant materials compost into the soil, adding nitrogen and other nutrients your plants will need in the spring to survive.

The plants won’t necessarily decompose completely during the winter, but when spring comes, you can till some of the plant debris into the soil, and it will keep decomposing over time.

8. Trees Fertilize Themselves

If you have trees in your garden, you might be tempted to rake up all the fallen leaves and get rid of them.

That’s a huge mistake.

Trees drop leaves around their root zone, and these eventually decompose and add all sorts of nutrients into 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 in the winter as well. Leaving piles of woody pruning leftovers throughout your garden or woodpiles gives snakes, lizards, and salamanders a place to overwinter.

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

10. Reduce Trash Output

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 throughout the country.

The EPA estimates that leaves and yard debris create around 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 adding acids into the ground that pollutes the soil and water.

The Exception: Diseases

One major exception exists for leaving plant debris on the ground and that is if you’re worried about plant diseases. Many plant diseases overwinter in the garden, surviving on the plant debris. Unless you want to infect your plants in the next growing season, you have to remove the plant debris from infected, diseased plants.

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

Leaving only a few sections untrimmed and natural might be enough for the local insects and wildlife.

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