Sunday, November 6, 2011

Don't Cut Back

Leaves are falling down all around us, late season perennials are producing seeds, and acorns have turned areas of ground under oak trees into what appears to be a game of marbles.  It is a time for plants in the temperate areas of the United States (like Georgia) to shed the leaves that they no longer need and for seeds to disperse. Even pine trees drop some of their needles.

Rudbeckia hirta seedhead - waiting for a bird

This is also the time of year that gardeners feel compelled to “tidy up” the garden and “put it to bed”.  What a ridiculous idea!  Does Mother Nature do that? No!  She has many good reasons for not doing so, and I’d like you to consider some of them as you ponder the list of “garden chores” that you have created for yourself.

Leaves enrich the soil as they break down and as critters like worms and beetles eat them and poop out free fertilizer.  Omnivorous birds like Brown thrashers sort through leaf litter to find and eat these creatures - so you are feeding the birds as well when you have a good layer of organic material.

Leaves feed earthworms and beetles - and feed your plants
Rake the leaves off the lawn (or chop them up with your mower) but don't let them leave your property! Giving away leaves is like giving away money.

As perennials die back, their dried stalks hold the remains of their flowers and their ripening seeds. Fluffy seed heads attract the attention of small birds like Gold finches to come feast on them.

Seedheads of Eurybia spectabilis

Plants continue to support insects even in this phase.  Larger insects and birds happily keep these insect populations in check – Mother Nature expertly uses the food chain to keep the local ecosystem balanced. Healthy populations of birds rely on these small insects being there for them.

Bugs on Eupatorium will feed others

So resist the urge to "tidy up" and let Mother Nature finish what she started.  The rest of the critters we share this place with will certainly thank you.


  1. Thinking about driving around today to pick up bags of discarded leaves and pine straw and bring them home.

  2. Well said Ellen! Also, I think leaving the "skeletons" of the plants still standing is more interesting to look at than a flat, boring, cleaned out flower bed. At least I can imagine what was there last summer and what will be next summer.

  3. Beautiful seedheads, Ellen, especially the Eurybia spectabilis! :)

  4. EUPATORIUM.Sounds like a place where you go to see Eupas sing or put on plays.

  5. It does sound very stately, doesn't it?

  6. I love that line - poop out free fertilizer! What could be better?

  7. ~smile~ I like how you think, Jeff.

  8. Nice article. I just posted a similar piece at tumblr.

    It's important that people understand that in tidying, they're not helping...