To my mind, Columbus Day weekend is when the fall cleanup of the gardens begins. By then, I’ve already pulled some spent vegetable plants, but the real work in the perennial beds begins about now.

My methods of cleanup have changed in the almost 20 years I have been writing this column. Two things are behind that change: First, we’ve learned that leaving plants standing helps wildlife. Second, researching for this column has taught me a lot.

The blooms are lovely, but once the leaves of daylilies flop, it’s time to remove them for the season. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The first plants I remove are those with flopped leaves, for instance, daylilies, a wonderful flower that produces blossoms in spring and early summer, with occasional new blossoms late in the season. Daylily leaves don’t always turn brown before they flop, but they can be removed, anyway. The leaves are no longer feeding the roots. You don’t even need hand pruners. Just grab the foliage close to the ground and pull sideways. They come out easily. If left in the garden they supply bedding material for rodents.

Any foliage that is still standing, such as irises, which finished blooming months ago, I leave alone. The plants still look neat and healthy, and they add structure to the garden.

But the most important plants to leave standing are those with spent flowers and seed heads, which provide food for beneficial insects and birds.

I mentioned last week that some of our asters got blown over in the high winds. The ones that didn’t get pulled out of the ground, we stood up and supported with stakes. We grow a lot of asters: Some we planted, some self-seeded. The colors of the self-seeded ones are less intense than the cultivars, but the bees, butterflies and moths love them and often visit at a time there isn’t much else around for them.


Goldenrod is another fall bloomer that just shows up and that pollinators love. Many people think they are allergic to goldenrod, but the problem is actually ragweed, which blooms at the same time. Goldenrod is insect pollinated whereas ragweed is wind-pollinated and causes sneezing.

A side note here: Taxonomists doing DNA research have changed the plant family name of the New England aster to Symphyotrichum. It used to be Astereae. Nobody else uses the new name and since I can’t pronounce it, I’m sticking with ‘Aster.’

Plenty of other late-blooming plants should be left standing through the winter even if they turn brown and look a bit ugly because they provide seeds that feed the birds as well as other small wildlife.

Even after they turn brown, let ornamental grasses be through the winter. They provide food and shelter for wildlife. Shutterstock/Michael G. McKinne

Echinacea in Tom Atwell’s garden. Leave the plants up over the winter for the wildlife to feed on the seed heads. Miracle-Gro has called the cones “Mother Nature’s bird feeder.” Photo by Tom Atwell

Echinaceas are a wonderfully showy plant that will stand tall in winter storms, and attract bees and birds.  We leave our ornamental grasses standing, too. To keep them from getting blown over in the winter, we tie green gardening string around the clumps. Some other good plants to leave standing are Joe Pye weed, Helenium, coreopsis, liatris and bee balm. They offer birds food and spring nest-building material.

Hollow-stemmed plants or stems with spongy centers provide nesting sites for native bees. Native plants that serve the purpose include Joe Pye weed, elderberry, wild bergamot, mountain mint and swamp milkweed. A non-native that serves the same purpose is asparagus, and we have a lot of that.

Permit me one last digression: We do not put out a bird feeder. We offer snacks to birds through the plants we plant. Beyond that, bird seed contains many weed seeds, such as thistle and pigweed. Birds drop the seeds, which then sprout throughout the next spring and summer. Take it from me, if you use a bird feeder, don’t place it in one of your gardens.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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