Spring Garden Clean Up for Pollinators

March 4, 2024

Contributed by Barbara Johnston, Harford County Master Gardener

Congratulations! Give yourself a pat on the back, you did it!

You followed all the advice, memes, and signs that told you ”Bees Like Messy Gardens” and “Leave the Leaves and Stalks” this fall…and now what ? Spring will be here before you know it.

When and how do you start garden cleanup?  And how do we clean without harming pollinators and insects or disturbing birds, bats, frogs, turtles and a host of mammals?

Relax, this is not the time for garden cleanup. This is about one thing, it’s a character trait that I find challenging, but when it comes to gardening and nature it is essential. Patience!

So grab your favorite hot beverage, flip through your pile of seed and plant catalogs. Sharpen and clean your garden tools and start planning your native plant garden because this is the perfect time for this activity. Hold fast, you won’t be outdoors until March, the safe month to start pruning your non-flowering trees and shrubs…patience! When should you start garden cleanup?  Most research suggests waiting until daytime temperatures are “consistently” at 50 ᵒF for several days. This allows nesting insect species a safe, undisturbed place until emergence. This is a general rule of thumb.  Every overwintering insect species requires a different temperature, and each emerges at a different number of degree days. The longer you can wait to clean up, the better off they are!  Also consider our national weather patterns are changing. The USDA, in November 2023, updated the Plant Hardiness Zone Map. In Maryland we range through 4 zones, 5a – 8a. The last frost dates in our state vary from April 21- through May 30 so keep a watchful eye on the temperatures in your zone.

Where in the garden to start your cleanup? The University of Maryland Extension has A Gardeners Guide What to Do & When. This seasonal calendar contains monthly lists of gardening actions. In this article we will look at the spring lineup of garden actions.

March: It’s a great time to start “gently” cleaning debris but remember you are leaving the “mess”. It’s still too cold to remove all the old stems. Be cautious of stepping on hidden buds, patiently emerging below your feet! Clip stems of perennials and grasses to 2” above ground and leave the clippings on the ground around the plants. These will break down and disappear by the time your plants are grown. Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs and remember to save those cuttings to create a brush “snag” pile for building a wildlife habit.

April: Continue to do your “gentle” perennial cleaning. Keep leaf debris in the beds! If your soil is not frozen you can do a soil test. The Extension Office in Harford County has a handy video on How to Take a Soil Test. University of Maryland Extension provides Soil Info on how to select a soil lab and which companies provide this service.

If you have numerous oak trees* you will want to remove the tough, leathery leaves from around the base of plants as tender perennials emerge. Oak leaves can become too heavy and thick for delicate seedlings. *NOTE: “Oak trees support more forms of life and more fascinating interactions than any other tree genus in North America ” – Douglas W. Tallamy. In his book, The Nature of Oaks he reviews various species of oaks, their culture requirements, and how to properly site an oak on your property. This book is an excellent resource. Maybe you should consider planting an oak tree on Earth Day!

Let the rest of the leaf litter break down into wonderful humus – your garden will thank you! Don’t immaculately clean and discard the leaves, called Bag and Dump …instead loosely gather up what you need to remove. Designate a section of your yard as a woodland debris area. Use pruning stems to create a stick/brush, snag pile that will provide habitat, food, and shelter for emerging spring pollinators. I am fortunate to have a nearby wooded area to create these shelters. If you want to make it more attractive, screen off this ‘messy’ area with a variety of native plantings.

If needed per a soil test, add about an inch of organic compost to your beds. Let your spring bulbs bloom but don’t trim the leaves until they turn yellow and die back. These get chopped up and go in my compost pile. A layer of light and airy chipped type mulch can be added over your organic compost to suppress weed growth. Avoid shredded mulches as they become too dense and compact over time. They will form a hard surface crust that won’t allow enough air, water, and space for nesting and emerging pollinators and plants.

May: This is the fun month because you get to plant those native seeds, plants, and grasses that you carefully researched and chose for your pollinator beds. Wait to plant tender plants until after the last frost date has passed! I personally never plant anything in Harford County until after Mother’s Day.

By the month of May our lawn grass is actively growing, and folks are mowing. A pollinator concept that is vastly becoming all the rage is No Mow May / Low-Mow Spring! Or Let it Bee! No mow practices promote pesticide and herbicide-free lawns, to remain untouched for a month. This allows a variety of weeds, clovers, and dandelions (yes, I did say that) to bloom and provide early nectar for pollinators.

Improper mowing of the lawn is the most common cause of poor lawns. When you do start to mow, set your blades at the highest setting, and leave the clippings behind to provide nitrogen for your lush, beautiful natural lawn. Also in May, leave some bare ground spots in your garden for ground nesting bees. Ahhh, I just took a breath of fresh spring air…

Wow, thank you! You’re helping the environment by providing habitat, food, and shelter for countless species. You’re being a good steward of nature by reducing water usage, chemicals, and gas emissions. What did you say? You’re worried about what your neighbors will think? To help folks understand my ‘messy’ garden and lawn, I put up a few signs letting my neighbors know that I garden for pollinators. You can buy or make signs to help publicize the message: Let It Bee ! No Mow May: We are feeding the bees!, or Pollinator Habitat in Progress. Why not give No Mow May a try this year?

Happy Gardening and Happy Spring!

The Xerces Society
Bee city USA
Monarch Joint Adventure
Corner Pollinator Garden

Grow Wild is a Harford Land Trust program established in 2023. Grow Wild serves all of Harford County, Maryland. Our focus is on educating and engaging urban and suburban residential communities in this region about the benefits of converting at least a portion of their yards to more natural spaces, where pollinators and other wildlife can thrive.

Scroll to Top