Ron Krupp: The winter garden

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Ron Krupp, who is the author of “The Woodchuck Returns to Gardening.” It originally aired on Vermont Public Radio.

It wasn’t that long ago that folks put their gardens to rest in late fall by raking and burning leaves and cutting down dead plant material and hauling it off. This resulted in yards being made clean and devoid of life.

But times have changed and preparing the garden for winter isn’t what it used to be – and not just because of the unusually warm fall temperatures. More and more, with native plant gardeners leading the charge, the yard and garden are seen as year-round havens for a host of pollinators and other inhabitants.

A yard scraped clean and bare gives birds a good reason to fly right on by, while a highly textured landscape signals a diversity of plants and better opportunity for food. Spent plants offer a safe place for birds to forage. Seedheads offer food in the fall and through the winter. And in spring, the extra plant material means there will be more insects available — a critical source of food for nesting birds as they feed their young.

Native bees may overwinter under bark, in a rock crevice, in a burrow or a stem.


Spent plants, and the snow they gather, add a layer of insulation that protects plant roots from harsh winter winds and sub-zero temps. In this way, plants protect themselves, the soil, the critters that harbor there, and the birds that feed there. Native bees may overwinter under bark, in a rock crevice, in a burrow or a stem.

So it makes sense to leave native plants standing over winter; and in the spring, instead of cutting stalks all the way down, leave 12 to 15 inches of stubble standing for pollinator nesting sites. Then lay the rest on the ground as a mulch layer. For supporting life in the garden, and protecting the health of soil, your available leaves and spent plant material are far better than wood mulch or bark chips. And so much cheaper!

There’s also beauty in a winter garden. Seedheads, leaves and stems in brown, red, black and gold; snow resting on dried seed pods and berries clinging to bare branches; frosted leaves and sparkling grasses. I collect pine needles and spread them around the oval path in my front yard to soften and brighten up the landscape with their golden colors.

In winter, nature contracts with us. Then in spring, we emerge from hibernation to be greeted by the garden — and by all the life that’s sheltered there.

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  • Brian Tremback

    Thanks, Ron, for your sensible ideas about managing gardens. Too often expectations for the indoors get applied inappropriately to the outdoors – bare ground or mulch as the “floor”, plants as pieces of “furniture”, and almost all insects as vermin that need to be exterminated. In a world filling up with humans, it’s up to gardeners to protect biodiversity.

  • Steve Merrill

    So True! My yard’s now a garden, apple trees (4), pears (2), blackberries, courants, jerusalem artichokes, & raised beds for veggies. The lawn? Minimal. And all this on 1/3 an acre. Does it look “unmanaged”? You bet! Does anyone complain? I don’t hear a peep from either my bee hive nor at the bird feeder, where it counts. Peace. Solace. Sanctuary. Costs? About $100 for a beehive and $75 for the compost bin. No mowing, No gas, No noise. SM, N.Troy.

    • Alice Esther

      Sounds lovely, Steve. I’m gradually adding fruit trees and shrubs to my lawn, too, as well as a dew pond.