Garden Cleanup: Less is Better?

I’ve had this post in my drafts file since fall (aka “autumn”) but just had to write posts about other things first. Books, more books, and book cover images. After all that stuff, it’s about time for a garden-related post. So here it is.

I like the look of a tidy, tended garden. Leaves raked, edges crisp, dead stems and stalks cut down to bristly little stubs. It has that “been there, done that” look at the end of a growing season. Now it’s resting, waiting for spring, when sprouts will sprout, buds will bloom, and the gardener will bustle about dispensing magic dust and fresh compost.

I also like raking leaves, piling them up and loading them into a wheelbarrow for a short trip to the compost heap, where they’ll eventually become compost. In spring, I load compost into the wheelbarrow for a short trip back to the perennial beds where the leaves landed after falling off their trees.

Does anyone detect a wee bit of absurdity in that last paragraph? Raking up leaves, carting them several yards/metres and several months later — when they’ve decomposed — lugging them back to the very same spot.

Maybe it’s better to let them rot in place. That’s good enough for Mother Nature, after all. You don’t see her busting her butt with wheelbarrows. (But then, she has all the winds of heaven at her service.)

This past autumn, I thought I would try something different. I raked leaves off paths and pavements, but let most of them lie where they landed on beds and lawn areas. I didn’t leave as many on grass as in the perennial beds, and I made sure there were no thick, smothering leaf mats anywhere.

Dead leaves and new green shoots

The idea is that earthworms will drag those leaves underground and… do whatever they do with them. Eat them, I guess, and poop out the remains in the form of worm castings, churning up the dirt in the process.

I’ve also resisted the urge to cut down all the withered perennial stalks, even after they’ve lost their charm and just look dead. I’ve read that they provide cover and feeding opportunities for birds. Supposedly, bugs deposit eggs in the dead plant material, and whatever hatches out is appreciated by foraging birds. I certainly see them hopping around and scratching among the dead leaves, so maybe there’s something to that. (Of course, the big attractions at my place are feeders full of seeds and suet.)

Front garden perennial bed with dead stalks past its best

I’ll let this scene persist until we’re back to double-digit temperatures (in degrees C, of course), whereupon I will cut down the dead so the living may flourish.

Another plus to this approach is that it’s less work. I just hope I’m not creating a perfect environment for plant-eating larvae and fungi that will cause damage next spring and summer. I don’t think those organisms understand the concept of karma.

Fallen maple leaves and Geranium "Anne Folkard"


  1. You have come up with a sensible plan there, Audrey. One that should work for both you and your garden.
    I keep going outside and looking at what passes for my garden, knowing that once the temperature rises a little, I have an awful lot of catching up to do!

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    1. We had an unusually windless fall this year. I really enjoyed that. Winds do tend to pile leaves up in certain spots (sort of like dust bunnies inside), especially when they’re still dry and fly around. Once there’s been rain, they pack together and stay put, which is why I make sure there aren’t deep drifts of leaves in places where I don’t want them.

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  2. This is a wonderful blog post. Thank you for writing it. I am always grateful to read/learn about people who are re-appreciating/honoring all of the amazing things that nature has been doing here on planet earth for millions of years — such as creating vast numbers of solar collectors (ie: leaves) which then decompose and re-enter the cycle of life as compost. I join other readers in looking forward to any/all follow up gardening blog posts/insights/observations/wisdom you are moved to share in 2020.

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