CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Leave it messy this fall

Posted by: Todd Hagenbuch, Routt County CSU Extension

 As gardeners, we take a lot of time to make sure our home landscapes look attractive and well-kept. Having untidy spaces can make us feel like we are slacking on our duties, and as the end of the growing season rolls around, many of us are tempted to get out into our yards to ‘clean-up’ our dying and dried-up plants. I’d encourage you to consider the benefits of leaving it messy, however.

Outside of our landscaped areas, Mother Nature has broken-down and taken care of dead plant material for eons. These plants, finished with their growth for another year, stand testament to the previous year’s successes and bear the seeds of a fruitful season. Those seeds not only have the opportunity over the winter to fall out and help start new plants next spring, but also provide necessary food for winter foraging birds and wildlife.

My Native Garden is wonderfully messy and stays
that way.

Keeping plants and plant litter on your gardens can also reduce soil erosion and promote water holding. Dry areas that don’t see snow cover for the winter can benefit by having soil shaded and mulched by plants that are slowly breaking-down over the season. Those of us who do have snow cover can watch as the old plants help slow snowmelt and hold moisture when warmer temperatures arrive.

Older plants can also provide visual interest in a winter season that has little. My penstemon heads sticking up from the snow always remind me of the beautiful blooms I enjoyed the past summer and remind me that a new season will be upon us before we know it. Seeing seed heads and older stalks wave in the wind or cast shadows on my wintery flower bed make the winter seem less bleak and more dynamic, which helps me feel better about life on a January day that sees below-zero temps and a frigid wind whistling around my home.

The coop garden always looks interesting in the
winter with the seeds providing food for the birds.

If you can leave your yard a bit messy this fall, I’d encourage you to do so. My only word of caution is to make sure you clean up in areas that will promote voles or other garden pests by providing them cover, especially around trees they might like to girdle. Otherwise, enjoy the fruits of your labor a bit longer and know that there will be continued life there after the snow recedes.


  1. Great advice unless there've been pathogens or unwanted insects. In those cases, wouldn't sanitation be advised?

  2. I'm all in on this philosophy and have been for a few years now. I do have to resist that urge to "tidy" up. Those clean edges always look so nice. I always ask myself - who are you tiding up for? Do the good insects and birds and other wildlife want you to tidy this? I have learned a few things that are so aggressive that they will take over, so I'd rather not have them at all. Like common yarrow. But, my dill, calandula, California poppies, Mexican hat and others, keep reseeding and are okay with me. I have not noticed a pathogen build up in the 5 years or so I've been pretty hard-core "messy."

  3. Thank you! This is just what I needed. I've been lacking motivation to work in my gardens since my husband passed away almost a year ago. In spite of the lack of care, my perennials have bloomed profusely and my lack of care goes mostly unnoticed. I also had a whole garden of sunflowers that came up from last years seeds and they are gorgeous and the birds love them.