With such a warm and snow-free winter here in southern New Jersey, this year I fielded the same question from many new wildlife gardeners through January and February – when is it safe to clean up the winter garden?
Many of us leave our wildlife gardens standing through the winter to provide crucial cover and food to birds (in the way of seeds and overwintering insects) during a stressful time of year. Our still-standing winter gardens also shelter many of next year’s insects (butterflies, moths, spiders, preying mantises, and more) as overwintering eggs, caterpillars, or chrysalises.
I dared to clean up my winter garden during a 60 degree stretch of days in late February, earlier by a month than most recent years. The decision was made for me; plants were breaking ground possibly a full month ahead of their normal schedule. Cleanup went quickly, taking only three days, compared to doing it later in spring when so many perennials are bursting with growth, making it hard to take a step without crushing them.
Spring cleaning in the winter wildlife garden is fairly minimal and does not require a fleet of tools. Kneeling pad, garden gloves, wheelbarrow, clippers, and occasionally a shovel are all you need. Stems are broken off at the base of perennials. Any that won’t bend and break are clipped at the base.
Care is taken not to disturb the soil, otherwise a world of weeds will appear as if by magic. Raking fallen leaves out of the garden is not necessary, since these leaves are already breaking down into nourishing soil and protecting perennial roots from any late freeze. The shovel is used for the occasional squirrel-planted tree (Walnuts most commonly in our garden).
Spring cleaning, if done with wildlife in mind, is a slow process. On hands and knees each section is tackled slowly enough to spot garden treasures (overwintering chrysalises on stems, partially grown caterpillars in curled up leaves, microscopic eggs on plant material). Many treasures were found along the way: several spider egg sacks (one intact and one that had been discovered by hungry birds and emptied sometime over the winter), Carolina Mantid egg cases, and plant stems that were nibbled to the core (proof that the garden’s dormant insects aided wintering birds).
Tackling spring cleanup with a rake would not be as intimate and these treasures could all-too-easily be destroyed in the process.
We scatter each wheelbarrow load of plant stems and seed heads loosely in our informal woodland garden where there is plenty of room. If, instead, we were to pile everything in one spot, load after load on top of the last, the chance of survival by unseen chrysalises, caterpillars, and eggs on plant material would be pretty bleak indeed.
Looking out on this now-tamed wildlife garden I can hardly wait for the growing season to unfold. I am eager to share the garden and all its visitors with another gang of potential wildlife gardeners. Join me for one of the nine “2012 Tours of Private Wildlife Gardens” that I’ll be leading this July, August, and September. Think about getting your own garden on a tour to help hook a few more wildlife gardeners.
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