Q & A: To Clean or Not to Clean?

I’ve noticed that some of the gardens in my town get a good fall cleanup and others do not. Which way is better? — CD, Rome, NY

Answer: Cleaning up the garden is a rite of autumn for most gardeners, but is it really necessary? Well, yes and no. Pulling spent annuals, cutting back perennials, removing fallen leaves and other debris keeps the garden looking neat and tidy. It also gets rid of potential winter hiding places for pests. You will also have less work to do in spring, while the new season’s growth gets under way.

On the other hand, there are arguments to be made for allowing at least some perennials to stand in the garden through the winter. Rudbeckias and echinaceas, for example, can provide food for birds if late season flowers are not deadheaded and the plants are left standing. Tall sedums remain attractive long after the flower heads have dried to dark brown. Ornamental grasses provide structure and interesting form in winter gardens. And there is a sort of exotic beauty in the dark and disheveled ruins of the plants that bloomed so lavishly in summer. Some plants, such as perovskia, are better left standing in the garden over winter and cut back in spring.

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