Sunday, November 23, 2014

We're Done Here, Right?

Our first cold snap has crisped the remaining leaves earlier than usual, turning green to brown overnight. For some plants the event cut autumn short, stopping some plants right in their tracks.  Is it time to pack it up, clean it up and hibernate inside for the next few months?

Plump brown seeds await hungry birds

No and no! First of all, the winter garden is just now opening for business. Seed heads are ripe for the winter feast, offering a tasty array of seeds as well as a few berries to sustain birds and small mammals over the cold months.

Callicarpa americana fruit (white form) glistens in the sun

Leave those plants standing or at least throw them only lightly onto your compost pile or brush pile so that birds have access to the seed heads.

Bee excavates a nest in a plant stem.
Photo courtesy of Heather Holm
In addition, dead perennial plant stems can be nurseries for native bees.

Fallen leaves harbor bug eggs and the pupae of butterflies and moths. Don’t burn them or bundle them up to be hauled away.

If you need to move them, rake or sweep them (yep, sometimes I use a broom on my lawn when the leaves are fresh!), moving them into the side areas so that nature can continue her work.

It’s good exercise to work off that extra slice of pie and avoids the noxious emissions caused by leaf blowers (which is way worse than car pollution!).

So don’t pack it up and don’t clean it up. Let nature take care of the leftovers.

What about hibernating inside for the winter? I’ll admit that the first few cold days sap my enthusiasm for being outdoors. But the garden is still growing and there are new aspects of it to explore!

Lobelia cardinalis leaves need to stay uncovered

Here in Georgia some plants stay green. First of all, get out and enjoy them. Second, be sensitive to their needs. Rosettes of the perennial cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) need to stay uncovered so don’t rake your leaves on top of them. A leaf or two is fine, but mostly they should be exposed to the sun and air.

Explore the winter characteristics of plants and open up a whole new season to your identification skills. Woody plants can be identified by examining their twigs (the branch tips). Learn how to identify and recognize the ones you already know first and then branch out to identifying new ones.

With enough practice you could learn to identify these twigs: Paw paw (L), Sweetgum (C), and Viburnum (R)

Finally, for those of us that have plants in pots, this first snap is a good reminder to properly arrange any pots now so that they are best protected for super cold spells like we had last winter.


  1. Thanks for educating people about the wildlife benefit of leaving standing dead plants. Years ago, I used to clean up my garden, then put bird feeders out for winter. Eventually it dawned on me that leaving the seed heads up is much easier, and more useful, to wildlife. It's also more interesting to watch the birds eat from seed heads than from feeders.

  2. Neglect of the winter garden is something I've certainly practiced even without thinking about it! As soon as I saw your title, I thought "guilty as charged!" then threw another log on the fire. Okay, Ellen. I promise to get out there as soon as Thanksgiving company leaves. Oh wait. Maybe I'll do it while they are still here, and refer to it as a "bit of fresh air" after we overeat and want to get out of the house. Hmm.