It’s that time again and I know many of us are anxious to get outside and get busy.

If you didn’t do a good fall cleanup, you may look out on your gardens, lawn and perennial beds and see a mass of brown, dead ornamental grass stalks, the perennial leftovers from last year and the autumn leaves you “intentionally” left in the garden at the end of last season. (As well as a few welcome pops of color here and there from those cheerful spring bulbs.)

This is NOT a bad thing — remember, we talked in the fall about leaving things for bird, insect and small animal habitats. So if truth be told, we may be seeing a bit of a mess — and that can give us a serious case of spring fever.

Did you know that there is a better way to do a spring garden cleanup? Here are a few things to think about as you dream of time in the sun and a more pleasant-looking space around your home.

In early spring, many insects are still hibernating. Some of them wake up due to the longer days and others wake up because the temperatures are getting warmer. Lots of our friendly, beneficial insects (versus the garden pests) — including all those wonderful pollinators like native bees, and those predator insects that make meals of our garden pests like parasitic wasps and lacewings — often spend our long Wisconsin winters sleeping in hollow plant stems. If we cut down the dead plant materials too soon, we may disturb them before they have a chance to wake up and get busy. It is suggested to wait as long as possible to do the spring garden cleanup, preferably until our daytime temperatures are above 50 degrees regularly.

But no one does that, right? We gardeners are pretty predictable, and our season is short in this area of the country.

So, as an alternative to leaving “the mess,” perhaps you might consider tossing the woody plant and perennial stems into a compost pile or at the edge of your property. The key is to toss them “loosely” — not tightly bundled — so that our friendly neighborhood beneficial insects can wake up from their winter slumber whenever they’re ready. If you prefer a tidy look, you might also consider tying small bundles (a dozen or so stems) together with some natural material like jute twine. Then you can either lean them against a tree or hang them somewhere near the garden and continue with your spring garden fun.

Now you are ready to do a “modified” leaf cleanup, again after temperatures are consistently in the 50s, if at all possible. Please remember that there are an abundance of beneficial insects hiding in the leaves from last season, so doing this project gently and carefully is important. Some of the friends we might disturb (if we aren’t careful) are ladybugs, damsel bugs, butterflies and luna moths. These may be adults, eggs, pupae or cocoons — so watch for them as you prepare your beds.

Also, do remember that the leaf litter is a rich, organic plant matter that is really quite wonderful for our soil — so leave what you can right where it is. Mother Nature knows what she’s doing, after all.

A good spring garden cleanup should be slow and methodical — almost like a meditation. By taking a little extra time and doing it properly, your diligence will be rewarded with a bumper crop of beneficial insects and pollinators.

Enjoy the moments of sunshine, the smells of the soil and sweet spring blossoms — and the dirt under your fingernails!

Rae Punzel is a Kenosha writer and horticulturalist. She owns Bennu Organics, a horticulture services and consulting business. Contact her at