Winter Interest Shminterest

Last week I took my cat to the vet and the nice receptionist, who after a newspaper article about moi this summer found out that I gardened, asked me what a gardener does to a garden for winter. I said a gardener does nothing.









At a work-related reception a person asked me if I’d cut everything down yet. No, I replied, absolutely not. Ah, winter interest they responded. Sorta, I said, resisting the urge to proselytize. “I like to leave stuff up for the wildlife.” Ah, rabbits they replied. “No. A dozen varieties of birds. Possums. Even mice.” Oh, was the response, I guess that’s a good idea.









Not only is it a good idea, it’s a super-sparkly-gumdrop-awesome-magic-stupendous idea. Here are the reasons not to cut down your garden in fall:

1) You’re tired.

2) The thought of prepping for winter is not nearly as exciting as prepping for spring. It’s winter already? Again?

3) “Winter interest” (As if the garden is dull in winter—such a derogatory term.)

4) Stems gather snow and insulate crowns, protecting from frost heave. Also, no snipped hollow stems which would let water get down to the plant’s heart and freeze it to death.

5) Benefit to all sorts of living, moving wildlife, and also that wildlife currently sleeping under leaves, beneath twigs, and in chrysalides and sacks and webs and in hollow stems and…. (And all those early insects that will pollinate my viburnum and crabapples.)

We had our first snow last weekend, just three inches, but it bent over all my 4-8’ plants. This means fewer places for birds to perch, but it also creates a bird super highway. There are well worn paths amongst, into, and out of bent over plants laden with snow, as if these were places of commerce or speak easies. I may not be walking my garden right now when the temperature hovers around ten degrees, but others are walking it.







Last year I witnessed a hawk nab a junco who had just walked out from under the cover of a sedum. It was a clean kill and I felt sad. Then I felt happy. The seed heads and cover I left up provide safety and shelter to who knows what, and it may also serve as a buffet for those animals further up the food chain.

Don't forget a heated birdbath--northern flickers love them.









I’m sure I will wait until the plants are already several inches high in early April until I cut back the old stems, just as I did last spring, because I know the refuge this place is in my lawn-infested neighborhood. But it also takes a few days to “clean” my 2,000 foot native prairie garden—it is a good deal of work since I hand cut stems and use them as mulch—but that’s all the work I have to do until the following spring.

Do birds like popsicles?








Frankly, I’m just as interested in the winter garden as the summer one. And that’s not a gardener parent saying he loves his two garden kids equally because he has to save face. I mean it. Bring me a hard winter full of rest and patience so my spring may be coiled more tightly, ready to leap exuberantly once the snow melts.

Well, that's interesting.











And uh, if you want to read more about my garden and its first three years, I have an inexpensive little memoir for you.

By spring, this crabapple will be ready to eat. Which makes it interesting, too.

Don’t Miss! Benjamin Vogt’s Books:




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  1. julianna says

    i’m with you on that! i love the garden in winter. love the seed heads, bent over plants, stalks, leaves still on the ground giving shelter. i love seeing the underlying structure of trees and bushes, prints across the snow -guessing what came by. i love throwing out a handful of seed and watching the kids watching the birds. i even love the winter-long battle of wits with the squirrels over the feeders. in fact, the only thing i don’t love is shoveling out our long driveway after a wet snow!

    maybe this year we’ll get the heated birdbath too instead of bringing the boiling water out each morning.

    • says

      Winter is when I get most of my design ideas, especially for structure. I’m planting backwards–putting in shrubs. Of course, that’s hard to do when the perennials have a head start, I’ve lost shrubs to stands of monarda and even coneflowers.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Labeling Memory

  2. says

    I completely agree with everything you write except that winter is not as much fun as spring, summer and fall. This year I’m making myself go out and work in the winter–we have acres of invasives to get rid of.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Anita Bower recently posted..Pine Cone

    • says

      Yeah, get out there, snowshoe it! Get some exercise. Do you want to be locked inside? I was raised in Minnesota, and though cold sucks, after a few months you go outside no matter what. Invasives shouldn’t get a break in any season!
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Labeling Memory

  3. says

    Amen, and so well said. So many think a garden is only interesting when in bloom, or when produce is bearing, but a dead zone otherwise. Not so, as you have beautifully shown.

    I wish American English included a definition of garden that meant more than “flower” or “eggplant”. Landscape and habitat have their own connotations, and you can be a landscaper but it’s odd to be a habitatter. We need a new word to describe what we do and enjoy out there. A poetic, descriptive word.
    Laurrie recently posted..Do I Dare?

  4. Eric Miller says

    I love this idea but, alas, will have to do SOME “clean-up” as I live in a townhouse complex. I WILL do the least amount of it possible though and try to use Ben’s insights from keeping me from getting too “anal.”

  5. says

    I am right there with you. I already have heaving plants because we are lacking snow. My wildlife garden needs the deep restful snow. The wildlife visit in snow and rain looking for food. I also leave the spent stalks up for quite a while in spring and the meadow gets cleaned eventually. Most is mulch. Here’s to a lovely blanket of snow.
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Gardens Eye Verse-December

    • says

      We had 1″ of snow yesterday, and the whole time it’s falling there must have been 30-40 birds at once in the garden and around the feeder, nipping at corn, coneflowers, etc. The feeder was empty by afternoon. Red wing blackbirds, flickers, jays, cardinals, junco, swallows, woodpeckers. Whenever it snows they come out in droves.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Labeling Memory

  6. says

    Nice article Benjamin. And the phrase “lawn infested neighborhood” – I love it. Mind if I use that?

    I understand not cutting down for the winter, but is it needed in the spring? I’m new to this native plant culture and assumed we’d let nature take care of the “cut back”. Not so?????

    This’ll be my first winter with native plants, leaf litter, etc. I’m looking forward to seeing what new life I find in the spring after letting the gardens take care of themselves this winter.
    Hal Mann recently posted..Recent Inspiration

    • says

      Use it, don’t abuse it. I know people who don’t cut down in spring. I think for me, in my “small” garden where aesthetics do play a part whether I like it or not, it’s a good idea. But for larger areas, like an acreage? Well, that requires different management, like a good mow or burn or graze to open up the soil to sun and get seeds germinating. Maybe someone else can speak to what happened to them in a smaller garden when they left stuff up, but for me, I think leaving monarda f. up indian grass would cause more problems for the plant in spring, being thick as they are.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Labeling Memory

  7. says

    I usually compromise–I hack down the bed closest to the house, and leave the bigger beds farther out standing, just because we don’t get any snow cover, and the untidiness right next to the walkway starts to drive me a little nuts. (Of course, half the plants in that bed think winter dormancy is something that happens to other people…I will never get used to living in the South…)
    UrsulaV recently posted..Fuzzy-Wuzzy

    • says

      And I have my garden secreted behind a gate and fence. Sometimes I leave the gate open, but few couples walking their kids after dinner in mid summer look in. The front yard is dogwoods, chokecherry, birch, only interesting in winter. But at least I have plants! And I enjoy the hand sheering in spring–I snip stalks to about 4-6″ in length, and toss them right back in the bed. Never have to buy mulch, and I’m sure its insect and arachnid heaven!
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Labeling Memory

  8. says

    I don’t understand why anyone would want to cut down a healthy perennial bed before absolutely necessary in the spring. It’s so much more interesting through the winter months to look at clumps of standing stems and seed heads with bird footprints meandering in and out, than it is to look at a flat, boring, “clean” garden bed. (And exponentially better for the wildlife, of course, especially including pollinators and insect predators.)

    This spring I got a perfect lesson in that. I’d waited, as usual, until the new growth was up several inches before cutting out last year’s growth. Even so, in one clump of false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) I accidentally exposed a couple of “grubs” in the old stems as I cut them – probably one of the native pollinator species of flies or solitary bees. I felt awful, but used the unfortunate incident to take a couple pictures, which I’ve since included in talks I give occasionally about gardening naturally.
    Gaia gardener recently posted..The Gifting Question

    • says

      I have often asked the same question and have been told it’s easier to cut everything to the ground in fall; it’s too cold to do clean up in March; the ground is too muddy in Spring… totally thinking of themselves and not their place in the environment.

      However, even from a selfish perspective, why anyone would want to stare at an empty, bare piece of frozen mud for several months of the year is beyond me.

      • says

        Muddy? My clay is becoming less so as soil improves, and I always have a good layer of leaves / sticks / mulch. And in March we hit 50 and 60 for a few days each year, that’s when I go out, and it feels like such a god release. If a garden is work to you, don’t have one. But either way, I do only spend a few days working hard in mine each year.
        Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Labeling Memory

  9. says

    Hmmm….Now that I’m thinking of it. Cutting and “tidying up” is probably a real good strategy for those beds where we need or want to keep the formal appearance of “regular” gardening. I think one of the major complaints many people have about native plants and gardens is that they are “weedy” and unkempt looking. The public is used to formal, nice and clean gardens where everything is in its place and that’s one of the criteria they use in judging a garden. Not so for many of us here, but perhaps that why its hard others to accept natives as necessary and vital landscaping. Personally, it might be easier for me to convert others with a “better native and tidy than not native at all” philosophy. I know Joan Iverson Nassauer at the Unversity of Michigan has done some serious studies on what and why people accept as attractive landscaping.

    Good discussion. This is making me think a lot about the subject.
    Hal Mann recently posted..Recent Inspiration

  10. Rae Lynn says

    Love your post. I, too, have a native area around the periphery of my suburban backyard. One of my favorite winter sightings is watching sparrows trying to down strands of prairie dropseed so that they can get to the seeds. Too cute.
    Re: “invasive lawns”, I live in the upper south. The landscape aesthetic here is tidy, tidy, tidy. Lawns and clipped shrubbery. I sent for a sign from the Nat’l Wildlife Federation, saying that this is a “certified wildlife garden ” (as it offers water, shelter, etc. etc.). I posted it near the street where walkers can see it. I figure that spreading the word was worth the 40 bucks it cost.

    • says

      I was enjoying some juncos today dancing, i.e. digging into the snow to find seeds. They really moved and bounced around, got 2-3″ down! Your sign is a good idea, an essential thing to have up. It blows me away that people mow twice a week, water twice a week, spend money on gas and fertilizer, never use their yard, and think how wild and insane and expensive and difficult something natural is, like, oh, a prairie here in Nebraska. Seriously. Zooooommm over my head.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Labeling Memory

  11. says

    Love your article. My sentiments exactly. In spring when I cut the garden back I lay all the stems loosely in my woods so that insects overwintering in the vegetation can still safely complete their life cycle.

    As far as descriptive terms go . . . wIldlife garden / wildlife gardener works best for me!
    Pat Sutton recently posted..One Woman’s Wild Life

  12. says

    Last spring we picked up some massive river birch limbs from a craig’s list ad, and used them in pots on the front porch. The leftovers I stacked in a corner outside vertically and just was lazy about cleaning up or burning. During the snowstorm, a rabbit was using them as shelter. Small thing, but maybe not. I love just tossing garden bits on the ground and letting them compost eventually or be homes to who knows what. Lazy gardening = wildlife gardening!
    Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Labeling Memory

  13. says

    Yesterday I was enjoying the morning antics of birds eating the seeds from my standing stems of aster, goldenrod, and cardinal flower. I saw a white-throated sparrow for the first time! In the afternoon, they prefer to take a bath. If I had cut down all those perennials then I would not have had that lovely show and they would not have had breakfast at my house.
    Ellen recently posted..Marvelous Moss

  14. Ruth says

    “…lawn-infested neighborhood” Love it! And the orange & buff colors of native grasses before snowfall; the green of hemlock and white pine with paper birch trunks and the remnant coppery leaves of American beech and some oaks, and a few winterberry fruits…who says winter isn’t interesting?

    We have a small meadow that, when we abandoned the previous owner’s lawn, populated itself with 5-6 species of goldenrod, which stand all winter if they can. In the spring I just stomp the stalks down to the ground before the new stalks get more than a few inches high. They break right off at the ground and lie flat. After a few weeks, the new stalks and leaves cover the meadow with green.


  1. […] What do you need to do for your garden in winter? Last week I took my cat to the vet and the nice receptionist, who after a newspaper article about moi this summer found out that I gardened, asked me what a gardener does to a garden for winter. I said a gardener does nothing. […]

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