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What to leave in, take out when prepping garden, yard for winter?

Dig In video series: With winter almost here, don't forget to put your yard & garden to bed

Tips on putting your yard / garden to bed for the winter, what to leave in and what to take out. Debbie Courson Smith, a University of Idaho advanced master gardener, shows which plants to take out and which leave in for the benefit of birds, bugs
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Tips on putting your yard / garden to bed for the winter, what to leave in and what to take out. Debbie Courson Smith, a University of Idaho advanced master gardener, shows which plants to take out and which leave in for the benefit of birds, bugs

We’ve got good news for you this week: Less is more.

Don’t feel like you need to remove all the dying or dead vegetable plants in your garden or flowers from beds around your yard. Leaving some in the ground over the winter may benefit birds, bugs and/or the soil in your garden.

No reason to feel sad at the sight of withered flowers. Many perennials and annuals are a wonderful source of food for birds during the winter, said Debbie Courson Smith, a University of Idaho advanced master gardener.

“You think they look dead but this is food — these seed heads are just packed with hundreds of little black seeds,” Debbie said while pointing to the black-eyed Susans in the front of her house. “There are songbirds that love to eat this.”

Washington Post gardening columnist Adrian Higgins wrote a poetic and inspiring defense of letting nature take its course in the fall, urging us to resist tidying up nature in the fall. He said we’re “wired to see decay as rot, and rot as a threat to our well-being.”

“I see this decay as something beautiful, the way a steel panel becomes patinated with surface rust,” he wrote in an Oct. 12 column. “So my approach to garden grooming in the fall is to remove obvious blight — shriveled hosta leaves, for example, along with diseased foliage — but to let anything else stand through the fall and winter as long as it isn’t an eyesore.”

Plants need nitrogen for healthy growth, and some plants actually add nitrogen to the soil as they decompose. Those are called “nitrogen-fixing” plants.

Debbie has fava beans — and that’s on the list of nitrogen-fixing plants. So she’s not going to pull the roots of that plant out when she composts it in the spring. Other nitrogen-fixing plants include green peas, snap peas, sweet peas, garbanzo beans and lentils.

Two vegetable plants that she recommends that you remove entirely — plants, roots and any fruit on ground — are tomatoes and cucumbers.

“I don’t even want to compost this material because tomatoes can harbor diseases, and I don’t want those diseases going in my compost pile and then ending up back in my vegetable garden,” she said.

When her basil is done producing, she’ll pull the plants out, including roots, and chop them up before putting in the compost pile.

Once she’s removed plants and roots from garden beds, Debbie spreads a thin layer of compost over the top of the beds and leaves until spring. No need to mix it in.

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller

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