To clean or not to clean–that is the question every committed gardener should be asking themselves when fall is around the corner.

Cleaning up for fall used to mean sucking up every last leaf and cutting every perennial back to the ground. Lately, we’ve learned to be more mindful of our pollinators and their friends and have realized that it’s alright to let some stuff stand.

To clean

Clean up diseased or fallen leaves from vegetables, roses, grapevines, fruit trees, etc. and toss them in the trash, not compost. Many viruses and bacteria will overwinter in compost and compound your problems next year.

Clean up snapped, broken, or torn branches/limbs from trees and shrubs. Not only can this help prevent them from falling during our harsh winter winds, but by pruning them with sharp, clean pruners, you can help keep the tree/shrub from getting stressed and possibly help prevent a viral or bacterial issue from developing next year.

Clean up the pots and your tools. This is very important. Try using a large garbage can with a 10:1 ratio of water to bleach. Soak the empty containers and scrub the soil off with a stiff brush. Let them dry thoroughly and stack or store them for the winter. You will thank yourself in the spring!

Not to clean

Leave grasses and stems of perennials standing, especially ones that still contain seeds. Many kinds of beneficial insects and birds will need those seeds to get through the winter. Make a few small piles of brush and chopped leaves around your perennials for queen bumblebees to burrow in for the winter. Solitary bees will lay their eggs in the hollow stalks of grasses and perennial stems.

Be sure to leave some bare soil with a few rocks. Native bee queens will nest underground in abandoned holes.

It’s essential to be mindful when working in your gardens in the fall. Some butterflies, including swallowtails, hang their chrysalis from a dead stem or even tucked in among the leaves.

While cleaning, you may be tossing out next year’s beneficial insects and butterflies.

For more information on preparing your garden for fall, check out this article from Penn State: extension.psu.edu/cutting-down-perennials-in-the-fall. Marianne Campbell is a Penn State Extension Master Gardener of Washington County.

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