In winter, many people tidy up the yard for a clean planting space for the coming spring. However, it may pay off to embrace the “messy winter garden” approach to protect overwintering beneficial insects.
Think of your garden as a winter shelter for insects, birds, and microbes that depend on plant material for survival during the winter months. In the winter, a garden without leaf litter and life-sustaining plant material can potentially eliminate generations of beneficial insects and wildlife. Thankfully, there are several easy ways to embrace a “messy” winter garden, while providing beneficial insects and their offspring a place to thrive during colder months.
Let flowering perennials go to seed and leave the seed stalks standing. Seed heads are food sources for many birds during the winter, such as goldfinches, nuthatches, chickadees, cardinals, and sparrows. For a full list of native plants for wildlife, see Native Plants for Wildlife: Resources for Home Gardeners.
Native bumble bees, mason bees, and leaf-cutter bees live in cavities of plant material. Provide a winter refuge by leaving an area of the yard untouched for plant stems, leaves, and yard debris to decompose, away from leaf blowers or mowers. It’s important not to remove leaves from your garden. Insects, such as the swallowtail and sulphur butterfly pupae, overwinter on fallen leaves. For more information on native pollinators, see HGIC 1733, Native Pollinators.
Allowing plant debris to rest on top of garden beds provides insulation to plant roots. The slow breakdown of plant material will add organic matter to the soil. For more information on nourishing the soil, see HGIC 1655, Soil Conditioning – Establishing a Successful Garden Foundation.
Delay any garden clean-up until there are several consecutive days in the early spring of temperatures above 50 °, as this is the ideal time most pollinators “wake up.” NOTE: Don’t use this garden strategy in vegetable plots or near any beloved and fickle plants, such as roses, as this can sometimes encourage disease and fungal infections in susceptible areas.