Sorry, neighbors, but late cleanup is good for garden

We spent the weekend cleaning out our garden, and I’m sure most of our neighbors disapprove of our late start. But for those of us with perennial gardens who desire to encourage local wildlife and dislike pesticides, there are good arguments to leave our gardens as is until late spring.

Over the years the focus of our garden has changed from growing flowers to providing habitat for the local critters. This not only includes birds but a variety of insect life that both benefits plants and beautifies the garden. 

Several of the butterflies and moths that entertain us as they flit from flower to flower shelter in the leaf litter in chrysalis form during the cold months, then emerge once there are plants around to host their eggs. Spring cleanup means more skippers and swallowtails soaring around the garden during the day and more chances to see beautiful polyphemus moths in the evening and wooly bear caterpillars in the autumn.

Garden debris also shelters the solitary bees that pollinate our fruit trees and the wasps that attack the caterpillars that destroy our vegetables. Lady bugs and lacewings hidden in the litter spend summer days chomping up pests like aphids. There are also spiders, mites, flies and lots of beetles in various stages of development in the garden debris. 

These creepy-crawlies may not seem important, but many of them devour garden pests and provide much needed winter food for foraging birds. And many of these insects use the eggs of pests like stink bugs as larval food, so some “bad guys” are necessary to let a new generation of beneficial insects develop.

All that plant debris provides insulation for the overwintering perennial plants, too. I cut down the spent foliage of iris and peonies in autumn since they can harbor destructive bacteria and I clip back long growth on the roses that might whip around in the winter wind and damage the plant. But anything that isn’t full of powdery mildew stays where it falls. The dead material insulates the crown of perennials. Cutting dead stems can even damage some plants like lavender and butterfly bush, so they should be trimmed in the spring.

So with apologies to my long suffering neighbors, I’m sticking with my spring cleanup plan. The plants thrive on it, and we don’t use pesticides on our vegetables because there aren’t enough “bad bugs” to cause problems that can’t be treated by blasting them off the plants with a hose. 

There’s been a lot of news lately about jumping worms — Asian earthworms that can cause soil degradation. The Port Washington Garden Club has purchased a limited supply of Early Bird organic fertilizer, which kills earthworms. (There are no native earthworms in Wisconsin.) This is a control but will not eliminate the worms, which may be in new plant soil and mulch and can even be spread by wildlife. For more information and to purchase Early Bird, see the Garden Club’s website at Each bag costs $70 and will treat 1,000 square feet. It needs to be applied in May and again in September or October.

O’Connell and her husband Tom Hudson garden at their historic home on Grand Avenue in Port Washington and are members of the Port Washington Garden Club. Comments or questions may be e-mailed to mail@portgardenclub. org.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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