Here at 577, we believe in the power of plants to sustain, whether it is vegetables and fruits for humans, or seeds, pollen, nectar, and shelter for all animals from insects to birds and mammals.
A key part of sustaining our local ecosystem can be accomplished by every gardener when they allow plants to stand up over the winter. It is important to clean out vegetable gardens in the fall in order to prevent future disease and fungus problems. However, in the perennial beds, dormant perennials provide seeds and nesting materials for birds and mammals, while their dead stems and dried leaves act as homes for invertebrates’ eggs, larvae, cocoons, and chrysalises.
For example, look at the dried seedheads of coneflowers pictured below. Can you tell there are only a few seeds on them? I like to look at those and think how many birds found the calories and nutrients they needed in each seed. Also, look at the stems of this native cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) pictured below. It is full of tunnels from insects that have either entered or exited these sturdy, insulated homes.
When it has consistently reached the 50s for a week in spring, it is generally safe to cut down your perennials. Pile them somewhere else in the yard or allow them to lie on their ground where you cut them.
Many gardeners allow stems to remain at different heights into the summer to further sustain insects. Don’t worry, the new growth for the season hides the dead stalks.
From the Desk of Bennett O. Dowling, 577 Organic Garden Landscape Horticulturist