Oh boy! This time of year the weather can sure throw us a curve ball or two! We woke up to snow this last Saturday! Snow on November 1 in South Carolina! That’s crazy! It sure kicked me in the seasonal pants as a reminder that winter is well on its way and sent me into a panic knowing that I haven’t gotten all of my outdoor work finished yet!
This time of year our gardening calendars are full of chores we should complete to prepare for winter. But there is one gardening rule that I see on many calendars throughout all gardening regions that I would encourage you to break. Don’t just bend this “rule” break it entirely! I am speaking of cutting back your perennials and grasses as part of your garden cleanup.
Often you will see that fall garden cleanup involves the act of cutting to the ground all of those perennials and grasses that make up our butterfly gardens. It seems as though some folks prefer a very neat and tidy winter garden. But neat and tidy–“attractive”–is not necessarily a plant or wildlife friendly act. This is one fall gardening rule that you should skip.
First let’s address why this practice is not a plant friendly act. While many perennials and grasses do indeed lose their leaves or die back for the winter, pruning stimulates growth. If you prune too soon or live in a region that has mild fall days and even some deceivingly warm winter days, plants may produce new growth that will not have time to harden off before the first frost arrives. The new growth will die and sometimes the entire plant suffers. It is best to just leave it alone.
More importantly is the wildlife factor. Even though you may think your garden is ugly and untidy, the birds and beneficial insects (think butterflies) are going to love it. The grasses and many of the perennials, such as Blackeyed Susans and coneflowers, leave large, wonderful seed heads. These seeds provide much needed winter food, and the skeletal form of the plants provide cover for overwintering creatures.
Since I am particularly fond of butterflies, let’s talk a bit about how leaving the garden cleanup until spring benefits them. Not all butterflies migrate to warmer climates. In fact, most butterflies are residents. They live in the area all year long. This means that in some stage of their life cycle, they are winter hardy. This could be in the form of an egg, a caterpillar, a chrysalis or an adult (butterfly).
This leads to the age-old question of where do butterflies go in the winter? Most caterpillars climb off their host plant when it is time to pupate (to form a chrysalis). So while you may think it is okay to cut back all of the plants in your garden except the host plants, you are mistaken. Chrysalis can be found on almost any plant or structure near your butterfly garden. So if you clean up the garden, you are likely cleaning up and throwing out the chrysalis (and eggs) of overwintering butterflies.
But wait! It doesn’t stop there! Other butterflies overwinter in the form of caterpillars. These little guys find hiding places under leaves, rolled up in leaves, in seed pods, and in other matter that has dropped to the base of their host plant. The best help you can provide for these guys is some additional leaf mulch. (see here)
Finally, some butterflies spend the long winter months in the form of adults. These butterflies find hiding places in wood piles, in crevices of trees, under loose tree bark, and tucked in the cover of some grasses. Leaving small piles of brush and ornamental grasses untrimmed is an excellent cover for these guys. (Sorry, folks, those cute butterfly houses are not useful…cute…but not useful.)
When the last leaves drop and the colors fade from your garden, take a long winter break. Resist the urge to clean up your perennial beds until early spring. In fact, practice great procrastination! Nature’s poor housekeeping skills serve a purpose. Allow the form and structure of the plants to bring you some interest during the cold season and protection for the wildlife.
Here’s to untidy, structurally beautiful winter gardens and butterflies in the spring!