Fall maintenance, should we rake cut and clean up?

One of my favorite comics is Peanuts. The great Halloween special we all love shows the Peanuts kids running and jumping into piles of leaves, and Linus emerging from the pile…classic! As children we loved the crunchy sounds the leaves made as we raked them from the lawn, and the fun of hiding amongst the piles, its a great memory to be sure. I still like walking through leaves in my backyard.

Do these same crunchy leaves have something our garden wants? Yes, they do!

On my home farm every fall, we spread a great many leaves in our gardens, and mow many leaves with the John Deere to chop the leaves finely. The trees on our property are mostly maple and birch bearing leaves. This chopped leaf “mulch” is applied to our gardens, both flower and vegetable and we spread the remaining leaves on our lawns. Our soil is very sandy, and the leaf mulch adds valuable nutrients to our gardens and makes a huge difference in the health of our gardens and lawns!

Like us, critters love the leaves; in fact many depend on the leaves in our gardens. A wide variety of inhabitants make leaves their home for the winter, the thick layers of leaves provide shelter from the snow and storms, a cozy place for insects, spiders, salamanders and butterflies such as the Mourning Cloak to hibernate in winter. For microorganisms and invertebrates leaves are food that they consume and in turn break the leaves down to add to the organic matter in our soil.

Toads and salamanders make nests in the piles of leaves left in our gardens.  In late September I was filling our birdbaths, including two old garbage can lids turned upside down on our front terrace. Lifting up the can lid I was amazed to find two bright Blue Spotted salamanders!

Blue Spotted Salamander

Leaves had piled around the birdbaths, and this site, which is in the sun most of the day, facing south; so on the late September day, the salamanders had found water and heat of the leaves piled on the timbers of the terrace. My presence sent them scattering, but it was an encounter not to be forgotten!

How about the prairie garden? Conventional garden wisdom and advice steers us towards removing everything and “putting our gardens to bed” for the winter. I believe our need to cut and remove every stem from the garden stems from our Puritanical need to make things neat, but personally I love to let the spent stalks of the flowers and grasses be in the fall…the ‘mess’ is what makes our prairies and native landscapes a habitat! The stems and stalks of native wildflowers and grasses provide much needed shelter is valuable food for native songbirds. Goldfinches, Chickadees and Juncos depend on the seed throughout the long winter.

Birds love native plants

Insects and Butterflies deposit their larvae on flower stalks becoming ‘nurseries’ for the winter. Goldenrods are host to a parasitic fly; the Goldenrod Gall Fly-Eurosta solidaginis that lays its egg in the tissue of the plant in spring. The egg forms a fly larvae and the gall forms to “host” the larvae for a full year. The galls remain on the plants all winter long and the fly emerges in spring. Kirk, in our office, tells us that he and his children have a tradition of searching for the goldenrod galls in late December, and they collect the fly larvae from the gall and use it for ice fishing, making the fly larvae a tasty treat for pan fishing! If there is a hole in the gall, then this tells them a Chickadee found the larvae for a yummy burst of protein. http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/goldenrod_gall_fly.htm.

The beauty of the grasses in a winter prairie landscape is worth preserving; the brilliant red of the Little Bluestem and gold-brown stalks of Indiangrass and Prairie Dropseed above the snow is so beautiful. These grasses are our bird feeders in winter and Goldfinches will strip every single seed from our Big Bluestem. In my backyard Turkeys will venture right under our picture window to eat the seed of Indiangrass!

Thus ends our case for leaving our gardens untended in the fall…yes, to some it may look a little messy, and yes, we can still rake leaves and cut back and remove specific plants; especially any that may have suffered a disease such as powdery mildew, but I urge you to leave some Purple Coneflower and Black Eyed Susan seed heads for the creatures; the benefit of the seed, food, nest and winter homes we created far outweighs our need to clean up in fall. After all, fall and winter is a time for resting from our garden labors and exertions. We can now turn to indoor pleasures; baking pies for Thanksgiving, looking forward to family times together and planning next years garden with the great optimism for a wonderful year to come.

A conversation between God and St Francis…



  1. Lawn Care Orlando

    Like you I am an avid beleiver in recycling yard waste into the soil. Some one once told be but forget what tree it was that the leaves were poisonous to the lawn. Is there any tree leaves you would not want to mulch into your soil?

    1. sarie (Post author)

      Hi Lawn Care Orlando,
      I would suggest that you avoid using Black Walnut leaves as mulch or compost. There is some thought that the juglone toxin in the leaves will negatively affect the soil. Other than the Black Walnut you can use any leaves to amend your soil or compost.


  2. Jason

    I’ve reached a compromise on this issue. I do cut down the really big perennials, like cup plant and Joe Pye Weed. Just about everything else I leave up until spring. I did this because I was embarrassing my kids.

    1. sarie (Post author)

      Thanks Jason, I also like to cut down the big plants, Cupplant seeds are typically stripped long before fall arrives, and I too will cut these plants back in the fall. Good luck with the kids!

      Thanks for your interest in our blog!

  3. Aaron Gardener

    I totally agree with you about the virtues of leaving detritus in the garden and landscape.

    That said, I live on a windy spot where leaves are apt to blow onto the lawns of neighbors who prefer to keep their properties more manicured.

    So…it’s a balancing act!

    1. sarie (Post author)

      Thanks Aaron! Glad you enjoyed our post. Enjoy the fall and winter ahead.

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