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My Reflections on Spring Clean-Up

Updated: Apr 19

By Dorte Windmuller

Don't you feel the itch to get on your mark, get set and go?! To run into your garden and CLEAN UP! 

It's so satisfying to start with a clean slate and a visually organized environment.

But nature's signature is biodiversity. Biodiversity is her expression of unsurpassed intelligence. The more biodiversity, the healthier an ecosystem, with billions of interactions taking place simultaneously—symbiotic or predatory—to keep the whole system in a very fine balance. This law of nature is equally valid on a planetary scale, in agricultural fields, rainforests, prairies, city landscapes, and our gardens—even in our own bodies, as they are complex microbial ecosystems.

We all know that a garden devoid of food and shelter cannot be a host for abundant life. That's why we keep the seed heads for the birds so they get fresh, nutritious seeds throughout the winter, and we leave the hollow stem stubbles of our flowers so the stems can fulfil their function as nurseries for wild bees. We rake the leaves onto our flower beds because those leaves contain the butterflies we want to see in summer.

So when are we "allowed" to clean up? 

To answer this question, observe nature throughout the seasons. How does she clean up? And why so? The miraculous realization is - there is no waste in nature, period.

But, of course, a garden is a small space that needs to accommodate some functions and delight us with its beauty apart from being an ecosystem. So, we must balance our ideas and interests with nature's needs. By learning about the habitat requirements of insects, birds, and microbes, we can be good stewards and not too detrimental to this intelligent, highly complex natural system while keeping the garden beautiful. 

Here are the cornerstones:

1. Avoid Soil compaction at all costs:

  • Never step on wet soil; it will compact immediately.

  • Always only step onto stepping stones or designated areas.

  • We might collapse bee tunnels in the flowerbeds because 70% of wild bees nest underground.

  • Compacted soil will call in the weeds so the tough weeds can start building and repairing the soil structure so that more demanding plants can grow in it after this work is done.

2. Stems are bee hotels:

  • Intact flower stems can be cut anytime after the birds eat the seeds since bees most likely didn't use them as a nursery.

  • Cut the intact stems to various heights between one and two feet to create natural bee hotels with these stubbles.

  • If possible, keep the cut stems somewhere in your garden, in case insects were nesting in them after all. You can bundle them together and keep them in a location with conditions similar to where they grew, or you can just chop and drop them right in place to additionally feed your workforce in the soil. 

  • Be aware that butterflies like swallowtails will attach their chrysalis to stems and might not emerge until nighttime temperature lows are at least 7 consecutive days above 10ºC.

  • To achieve an even more diverse habitat and to introduce ourselves to a new look, experiment with keeping some stems up in an area where they fit.

  • Stems you cut last year or that broke naturally provide easy access and make it very likely that wild bees, native beneficial wasps that prey on pests or other insects have made the stems their home and laid eggs inside. To support our 360 diverse wild bees in their reproductive efforts, all stem stubbles must stay up until they break down naturally because different species of bees will occupy the stem-stubble hotels throughout the entire year. 

  • New growth will hide these stem stubbles, and they will never be unsightly.

3. Leaves are life's magic elixir

  • Leaves are food and shelter par excellence. The leaf layer is more biodiverse than any other layer above ground. It brings forth all good things, like nature's essential workforce that makes nutrients available for your plants and keeps the plants healthy and, therefore, resistant to the clean-up crews — pests and fungi. 

  • The existence of many charismatic beings, such as fireflies, the luna moth, and ovenbirds, is so tightly interwoven with a leaf layer that they have become rare in our landscapes.

  • So - when can we take off the leave layer? Never is the simple answer :-) It is like the principle of continuous bloom throughout the seasons to provide nectar at any time, with early blooming shrubs in spring to an abundance of flowers in summer and asters and goldenrods in fall. A leaf layer is only a habitat if it is present year-round! It is a habitat for many insects in their different life stages, feeding birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.

  • If you must remove some leaves in spring, the safest time is to wait until the apple, cherry, and plum trees are no longer in bloom and nighttime lows are at least 7 consecutive days above 10ºC. Most butterflies and bees will have emerged and no longer need a blanket against frost, but you will still eliminate the food that the soil microbes and your plants depend on and the home for many insects. 

  • Because it is best to keep all leaves in place in spring, learn over the years through your observations how thick your leaf layer can be to strike the perfect balance between nature's and your preferences. 

  • If you end up with too many leaves in fall for your garden beds, a straightforward solution is to replace some lawn with beautiful flowers, grasses and shrubs to create habitat and space for leaves.

  • Another solution is to keep the extra leaves in a pile underneath some trees or somewhere out of the way. Making a pile is also a good solution if you remove some leaves in spring. Use the resulting compost as a spa treatment for your garden in the following years. 

  •  A leaf layer will also protect your soil microbes, who make the soil a living, intelligent ecosystem that locks down carbon, builds structure, increases water holding capacity and cools the surface temperature, but only if it is present year-round. Have you ever seen naked soil in nature? Yes, in a mudslide or a volcanic eruption. After those disasters, nature will come in with her first responders, the weeds, to start healing, repairing and building the soil up for life to start over again. Do we want to be the disaster every year (and inadvertently call in the weeds), or can we be part of nature's thrive to create a more complex, biodiverse, beautiful, inclusive and healthy environment for all? 

We acknowledged that a garden must strike a balance between a healthy ecosystem and our need for beauty. We explored how we can accommodate the needs of wildlife, representing the action side of the coin. But the flip side of the coin is our mindset. Everything will fall into place when we experience that we are an integral part of this system. Our ideas of beauty will shift as we allow our minds to gradually free ourselves from societal norms and our education, founded in consumerist values. We will ask ourselves how we can contribute today instead of what we need to kill, and we will discover that we are truly loved by all the trees and creatures around us, who provide us with air, water, food, shelter, and joy, and we want to reciprocate. 

Let's fully embrace nature's intelligence and become part of this exquisite dance once again. As an observer, learner, and active participant, realigned with nature's biology, our physical and mental health will increase, and our urge to control will evaporate. 

Welcome to living life to the fullest! 


Connect and let me know your experience with garden clean-up.

Reading a book is a great way to enjoy the outdoors while holding off on cleaning up. Here are some of my favourites:

Doug Tallamy: any book, don't overlook The Nature of Oaks and The Living Landscape

Robin Wall Kimmerer: Braiding Sweetgrass



Register for an interactive Zoom meeting about Growing Native Plants from Seed, organized by the David Suzuki Foundation and ask me questions about how to up pot and when to transplant your seedlings on Wednesday, May 29th, 2024, at

Did you get curious about the fascinating microbial ecosystem in your garden soil? Book a biological soil exploration or learn more at

Also, on the website, find information on seed-growing workshops, which include all needed seeds. 

I will organize a couple of plant sales throughout the year. If you are interested in specific plants, send me an email to and I will let you know if I can get them, at what price, and if I can deliver them. Let me know the amount needed, your preferred time and your address. 

The Cliffcrest Butterflyway is organizing a Summer Festival that is taking place on June 22nd, 2024, at 3113 St. Clair Avenue East/ Victoria Park. It is called Create, Connect, Cultivate and Celebrate. We will have a sing-along, a community art workshop, a show and tell and a sale of grasses and sedges. 

If you are interested in helping with the creative planning of the Summer event or would like to volunteer at the event or the tree giveaway, contact me at

To a happy gardening season, lots of butterflies, bees and birds! I hope to connect with you at one of the events.



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