Don’t Spring Into Garden Cleanup

It’s so tempting, I know! The days are getting warmer; the migrating birds have returned, buds are bursting, and all the signs of spring have arrived. You’ve been stuck indoors for months during the cold winter and can’t wait to return to the garden. I’m right there with you! But if you are itching to get out into the garden for spring cleanup, stop right there! Cleaning up the garden too early could have detrimental effects. So gather up your willpower and stay strong. Because when it comes to cleanup, the parental adage “You can look, but don’t touch” applies to the early spring garden.

Don’t Spring Into Garden Cleanup Too Early

So why shouldn’t we run out and get pruning, raking, and mulching? After all, we delayed cleanup in the fall and are ready to make the garden nice and tidy. The most prominent reason is pollinators. In early spring, insects are still in diapause, a state similar to hibernation. As a result, many pollinators overwinter in the dead material you may want to remove, such as leaf litter and old stems. Leaving these materials in the garden over the winter protects insects and promotes microbes for healthy soil and ecosystems. But, if you remove these materials from the garden too early, you’ll remove the pollinators that are still sleeping.

Many Pollinators Overwinter in the Dead Material You May Want to Remove in Early Spring
Removing These Materials Too Early Could Harm Pollinators
Consider Holding Off on Spring Cleanup to Help Pollinators

Leaf litter also protects plant roots and dormant buds from winter weather. The temperatures in early spring are fickle, and it’s not uncommon to have snow and freezing temperatures into April in my growing zone. Leaving the leaves, for now, will provide your plants with the insulation they need during these swings in weather.

Leaf Litter Also Protects Plant Roots and Dormant Buds From Winter Weather

Often, insects, including pollinators and beneficial insects, use dead stems to nest in over the winter. You may notice the ends of stems plugged with mud or plant material, a sign that an insect is still in diapause within the stem. Chrysalises and cocoons also overwinter on the branches of trees or shrubs. By pruning too early, you could inadvertently destroy them. And leaf piles are the preferred overwintering spot for butterflies, ladybugs, and beneficial assassin bugs. If the leaves are removed before these insects emerge, they might be accidentally destroyed. This can have a detrimental effect on your garden’s ecosystem. Also, even after these insects have emerged, they still need shelter during cold snaps and spring showers. So, consider leaving your garden untidy for a bit longer.

Chrysalises and Cocoons Overwinter on the Branches of Trees or Shrubs
Praying Mantis Egg Cases Will Overwinter in the Garden and Hatch in the Spring
Leaf Piles Are the Preferred Overwintering Spot for Butterflies, Ladybugs, and Beneficial Assassin Bugs
If the Leaves Are Removed Before These Insects Emerge, They Might Be Accidentally Destroyed

Mulching too soon can also have adverse effects on the garden. Ground-nesting bees that haven’t yet emerged will have difficulty getting through the layer of mulch. It’s best to wait until later in the season to ensure they have left their nests. Also, the soil is still very wet and cold in early spring. Mulching during this time can trap too much moisture, which can lead to issues with mold and fungal diseases. Blocking the soil from the sun will also delay the warming of the ground, which could delay the reawakening of your plants. So, as lovely as it looks, try to save mulching for a date later in the season.

Emerging Ground-Nesting Bees Will Have Difficulty Getting Through Mulch

As mentioned, the soil in early spring is usually saturated from melting snow and early spring showers. Waterlogged soil is easily compacted, and working in the garden too soon could damage your garden soil. Holding off on spring cleanup will help preserve the soil structure.

Working Saturated Spring Soil Too Soon Can Lead To Compaction

So, with all that being said, when is the right time to start cleaning up the garden? The consensus is that gardeners should wait until temperatures are consistently 50 degrees or above for at least seven consecutive days. This is typically mid to late April or May for most northern growing zones. However, if you are unsure, Justin Wheeler from the Xerces Society offers a couple of questions you can ask yourself as guidelines to know when to start:

  • Have I put away my winter coat, mittens, and snow shovel? Are you confident that the season’s cold temperatures and snow are over?
  • Is the grass in the lawn getting taller? Grass typically grows once temperatures reach a reliable 50 degrees.
  • Have I paid my taxes yet? Mid to late April is usually the earliest you should consider spring cleanup.
  • Would I plant tomatoes now? Tomatoes need nighttime temperatures to be above 50 degrees.
  • Have the pear and apple trees finished blooming? Several ground bee species coincide their emergence with the blooming of these fruit trees.
By Holding off on Spring Garden Cleanup, We Can Protect Pollinators

So, even though we are all itching to get out into the garden and get growing, consider holding off the cleanup until later in the season. By waiting just a few weeks more, we can protect the habitats in our landscapes and promote a healthy pollinator population and garden ecosystem. In my opinion, that’s worth waiting for.

Sources: Spring Cleanup Time, For Pollinator’s Sakes

2 Replies to “Don’t Spring Into Garden Cleanup”

  1. Clear reasons and examples of this change in the way we traditionally clean up our gardens in the spring. I am covering this in my Garden Day talk. If we weren’t presenting at the same time, I would ask you to be a guest speaker!😂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. George, I’m so happy you’ll cover this topic in your Garden Day talk. It’s become an essential change in gardening philosophy. Too bad I’m presenting at the same time. We could’ve been a dynamic duo!


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