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I want to give beneficial insects the best possible opportunity to survive the winter in my yard. For the past several years, I've been leaving most of my perennials stand over winter and clean them up in the spring. I'd like to clean the dead plant material up as the new growth is starting in my yard, so the beds look nice in the spring, however it is usually cold enough yet in my climate when that happens that we aren't seeing many insects yet. My solution for the past few years has been to cut back the old growth and leave what I cut in loose piles in a corner of the yard, hoping that will give the insects a chance to emerge. I've seen advice to look for signs of overwintering insects to judge whether you're cleaning up too early, but I've never actually found any. I'm still worried, though, that I'm giving the insects a place to overwinter only to kill them in the spring by cleaning up too early.

What is the best way to balance out yard cleanup with insect preservation?

  • Exactly which insects do you know you have/are interested in preserving? – J. Musser Mar 16 '15 at 21:31
  • I really don't know what I have, and I guess that is part of the problem. I assume that there are probably spider eggs and butterfly moth eggs that overwinter, but beyond that I'm not sure. I know some of our native prairie insects, like stilt bugs, overwinter, but I'm not sure whether I even have them in my small patches of prairie plants. – michelle Mar 17 '15 at 13:20
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For some of my garden beds I dump shredded leaves on them, sometimes as much as four inches thick. It does look messy in spring but by the time the worms and other digesters get to work by June there is not much left.

My suggestion is to leave piles of plant debris in the fall as shelters for insects but mix them with mulch and soil so they will decompose without further action on your part. Shredding and mixing them will speed decomposition.

To get the most out of preparing your garden for winter consider this practice:

  • leave perennials with rigid stems (like native prairie plants) "as-is", do not cut them down. Deadhead them if they are enthusiastic seeders) When it is a year with snow the stems will cause snow to collect in the area and might provide shelter under the snow and snacking material for small mammals (if you want to encourage all visitors to your garden)
  • for perennials and annuals and anything else that you do cut down
    • deadhead them
    • chop them up using a leaf shredder/blower
    • mix with soil or mulch to encourage the breakdown of woody material
  • then top dress your beds with this mix. It will act as a mulch and provide hiding spots. Healthy soil will have lots of agents of decomposition like worms who will act in the spring to break down the clippings.

A biologist could confirm this but when small insects "bed" down for the season they do so in the ground or around the base of the plant. Cutting some plants down does not affect the ones seeking shelter unless they are living inside the plants like galls.

For spring cleanup I recommend composting everything so you can apply it in the fall.

The secret is to shred the material fine enough so it breaks down and does not look like straw.

Nothing more satisfying than sitting watching your garden and knowing natural actions are improving the soil and ecology while you watch...

  • So, Kevinsky, you are suggesting that rather than leave the plants stand to overwinter, I cut them back and leave them lay in place? These are mostly native prairie plants, if it matters. – michelle Mar 17 '15 at 13:09
  • @michelle I added some more context – kevinsky Mar 17 '15 at 14:12
  • Thanks for the additional information, kevinsky! I'm in a region that has a significant amount of snow nearly every winter, so the additional detail about the perennials catching the snow was helpful. If you don't mind a few more questions, when I cut the woody perennials down in the spring (generally as my early spring bulbs are starting to emerge) does it make sense to throw them on a temporary brush pile to give any insects I might not notice on them time to hatch/wake up? And won't I be killing insects by chopping up the non-woody plant matter in the fall? – michelle Mar 19 '15 at 14:20
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    Bees, butterflies and other insects will lay their nests in the stems of plants, not just in the ground. This prevents them from being in contact with the wet ground. – rockerBOO Mar 26 '15 at 22:42

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