Winter garden: Should you leave it or clean it?

With Madeleine Wilde on a lengthy Italian sabbatical, this reprint of a column from November 2001 seemed a timely alternative.

Decision time again. Should the garden this month be thoroughly cleaned of all the past seasons' growth or left alone until spring's emerging growth calls us back to the garden?

Several garden writers wax eloquently about the winter beauty to be found in dried flower stalks and seed heads. The frost catches and defines their forms, or the low winter sun highlights them in a way that can be remarkably different from their summer form.

In reality, the original question posed here is too simplistic, for even those gardeners who want to keep some remnants of the garden's glory intact through the winter months actually do a lot of other cleanup in their gardens.

For example, it is important to remove fallen leaves from around drought-tolerant plants in order to prevent rotting at their bases. Leaves that have blown in deep drifts need to be removed to prevent the smothering of the plants underneath. Paths and patios need to be swept clean for there is nothing attractive about gooey and slimy, decayed material on hard surfaces.

However, that gooey slime is wonderful for the health of your soil. The worms pull the decaying material into their burrows and the bacteria continues to add healthy ingredients. There is the additional benefit of the fall colors laying in drifts throughout the garden beds.

Yet, there is further refinement needed! The big, leathery magnolia leaves from my neighbor's tree do not add any beauty and are slow to break down. They go into the compost pile.

The dainty Japanese maple and Stewartia leaves are left on the ground, but not necessarily where they originally fell. I pull them out of the center growth area of the ferns and away from the emerging hellebore flowers.

My garden, and I suspect yours also, is too small to effectively hold big-leaf maple leaves so they join the magnolia leaves. So do the twigs that blow off the birches and other trees.

I clean the vegetable gardens thoroughly so that I can lay down a thick layer of manure. The winter rains wash the nutrients into the soil, and the beds are primed and easily ready for the first sowings in the spring. The perennial beds are the prime area for thinking about what stalks and seed heads can add interest to the winter garden scene.

Use your own imagination and aesthetics. Perhaps you like the clean lines of tidy beds? Perhaps this will be the year you leave the excess foliage for pattern and color? Many perennials, including the grasses, can safely be left to their own devices.

As our gardens have become more complex, the simple question of whether to clean up the garden in November really no longer applies.

Back in the '50s, the garden was in many ways very one-dimensional. Lawn, a tree or two, some shrubs filled with bedding or annuals or bulbs for the spring and summer seasons and then maybe the specialty areas, i.e., vegetables, roses, dahlias. Now we intermix these elements and create complex webs of color and interest.

This tapestry demands our attention year-round. The semi- or completely deciduous ferns that I chose to leave alone in November may look truly awful late in December after a snowstorm.

The stalks holding the seed heads for the birds may have toppled. For sure the winter winds have readjusted my carefully composed deciduous leaf patterns. We bundle up, cursing perhaps that we didn't just clean all this up in November, and venture out to our gardens.

The reward is to find the hellebore blossom before it was apparent, to see the shiny green tips of our early spring bulbs emerging, and to be amazed at the bulging new growth buds on our trees, shrubs, vines and perennials.

In the cold, dark wetness of the winter garden we sense the imminent arrival of spring.[[In-content Ad]]