That is the question of the moment: do you tidy up the garden for winter or not? Customers are asking here at the Garden Centre, especially first-time gardeners in the new subdivisions around us. I see discussions on the Facebook pages for gardeners from all parts of the country. I, personally, am a big resounding ‘No’ to the question! I’d rather you enjoy your patio and this fall sun, maybe with a coffee or cocktail in hand, and just relax. Neat-and-tidy gardeners are currently shaking their heads, I know. There are people who, for years, have had a tradition of ‘putting the garden to bed’ and then forgetting about it until Spring.
Here in Manitoba, we’re gardening in, well, a difficult climate. Any insulation for the roots and crowns of plants is a good thing. It protects them from the wild fluctuations in temperatures we can get, both fall and spring. When the foliage on perennials is uncut, the plant taller, it will trap and hold fallen leaves better. A good layer of leaves (or even straw if you are trying to grow tender plants like Hybrid Tea roses or Zone 5 perennials and shrubs) is the start of your winter battle plan. An old farmer I know says “Now is the perfect time to dump more brown leaves on your garden”. If you have neighbours that fill those pumpkin garbage bags of leaves for Halloween décor, go ask if you can have them after the season. Snow is the best little blanket for our plants. Snow is a great insulator, it minimizes the effects of weirdly warm January days, or super cold February nights, early Spring heat spells or late Spring frosts. The more you have, the longer you leave it in place the better protected your garden. If you are shovelling the walks this winter, throw it on your perennial beds if you can. If your perennials and shrubs are not cut back, the better that they will catch and trap the snow. Another reason to leave your perennials and shrubs up is winter interest. Seed heads can look stunning coated in frost; the heads of grasses like Karl Foerster, the round ‘buttons’ of spent Echinacea, the red twigs of dogwood all add to your winter landscape. In addition, these provide winter food for small birds; the activity of birds can be such a joy to watch from inside your cozy home! The mulch can also provide a winter home for some of our pollinating bugs, who need all the help they can get. Another good point for leaving the garden was recently made by Larry Hodgson, one of Canada’s foremost garden writers, in his blog ‘The Laidback Gardener’. In the post ‘No Need to Cut Perennials Back in the Fall’ Mr. Hodgson makes the excellent point that if you clean up the garden in fall, you are robbing yourself of valuable garden nutrients. By spring, the foliage of your plants and leaves will have, essentially, composted in place and everything that made up the plant has been returned to your soil. Free, organic fertilizer and soil improvement without lifting a finger.
So relax, enjoy these glorious Fall days. And come Spring, don’t be in a hurry to clean up the garden. Remember the lovely warm days in early April last year? By the third week in April we were back to nights of -15 Celsius, and neat-and-tidy gardeners lost some plants because the soil had warmed enough for, especially, perennials to start growing and the plants got frosted off. Leaving the snow to melt naturally, leaving the mulch in place will protect from those vagaries of weather and temperature.