It’s gardener vs. gardener season

I’ll either leave this or rip it out and replace it because it is really too much.

Pick a side, because the middle ground is disappearing. What’s true on the political front is equally true on the gardening front. Over the summer, I have watched gardeners in my region go all out for natives, ruthlessly getting rid of plants they—admittedly—like, once they find out their buddleia/shasta daisies/forsythia/clematis are “useless.” The daisies especially made me sad, because I’d love to have a big patch of daisies and have not yet been able to make it happen, through too much shade and likely too much incompetence. Native vs. non continues to cause heated and unnecessary conflict in the gardening world.

Another polarizing issue for many US gardeners is about to take center stage as we pass the autumn equinox, deciduous trees start to shed their leaves, and summer perennials finish up their decline. The discussion has already begun here, and it’s interesting. There are the traditional gardeners who love a fall clean-up. That means cutting back almost everything so the snow will have tidy beds to fall upon. Anyone who hires a mow ’n’ blow landscaper will see their perennials—and many shrubs—cut back to nothing.

And then there is the other side. “Leave everything!” they cry. “Don’t cut back anything!” It’s really just rumblings, now, but soon it will be a roar. And then the leaves. Who’d like to start a pool on when the first “Leave the leaves” post or meme will appear?

We have to clean up our maples leaves or they’d form a thick, sodden mat that—without decomposing at all—will smother small spring bulbs and emerging perennials in the spring. We put them out for the municipal compost program, which picks them up. But I was surprised to see that the crew who did the leaves also took it upon themselves to cut some mature hydrangeas (arborescens) way back and remove many perennial stalks and foliage. I was at work, and didn’t know or I would have stopped them. This year, I’ll be on the spot.

I just don’t see the point. Old man winter will beat the hell out of those perennials, and I won’t have that much to remove in the spring. Lazy gardener=wildlife advocate, in this case.

Gardeners who have diverse landscapes with abundant trees, shrubs, and perennials should likely not worry about what and what not to clean up. Just be lazy; do what you have to or really want to (your choice!) and leave the rest. Only the individual gardener can decide how much cleanup/lack thereof makes sense. Polarizing directives do not help them.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. In Puerto Rico, that will never take place.
    My inventory: 80Species/45 botanical families is probably over 90 percent from five continents.

    Nurseries are in feeble minds

  2. Doug Tallamy himself has shifted his thinking on natives – it is no longer strictly geographic, but functional. To quote, “The question is no longer whether natives are better than non natives. It’s whether ecologically productive plants are better in our landscapes than ecologically destructive plants.” That’s direct from one of his talks. I would not include Buddleia in a landscape because they can be invasive, so are destructive. He has also said that 70% native is enough to maintain an environmentally healthy landscape, so there’s room for peonies, and irises, and forsythias (if they’re not pruned into poodle bushes OMG!).

    • Wow! That’s not consistent with Tallamy’s new book, published in 2020, Nature’s Best Hope. He calls invasive plants “ecological tumors.” You might be tempted to respond that invasive plants are a small subset of non-native plants until you realize that Tallamy calls 3,300 plant species in North America “invasive.” (page 183 and 216)

      Interesting footwork on the question of the importance of geographic origin of plants. His book says explicitly that geographic origin is the “first attribute we must consider.” Because “plants native to the region are almost always far better at performing local ecological roles than plants introduced from somewhere else.” In other words, he equates geographic origins with ecological function. (page 90)

      I suggest you read Tallamy’s most recent book before reaching the mistaken conclusion that he has “shifted his thinking on natives.” It’s all there in black in white.

  3. It all comes back to creating a diverse landscape which will help weather extreme ‘weather events’. I live in the Chinook belt where snow cover is usually pretty iffy. Consequently, I do very little cutting back to protect the root zones. It has a subtle charm over the winter but by Spring looks like hell. Then am all too eager to clean it all up.

  4. I don’t really think most “cleaning up” is good for wildlife, especially insects. Having said that, there are always exceptions. Iris for example, can see a benefit to remove all but 6 inches of sword foliage to deter borers from taking up residence. There is the matter too, though, that it is YOUR cultivated garden. You have already altered the landscape with any digging and cultivating. I do try to favor insects, spiders, toads, birds, etc. when possible. As far as natives, I believe it doing your best if possible. For example, I cannot understand the desire for Burning Bush these days when you have such beauties as itea, high bush blueberry, many viburnums, diervilla, that give lovely color in fall. My high bush blueberry is the most striking, warm red right now.

  5. I’m in CA where we are expecting one more round of 100-degree heat this weekend, where leaves won’t change color for at least a month more, where falling leaves won’t be much of an issue until mid-November at best … and I’ve already seen way too many of the “leave the leaves” posts. I mean, it sounds good, and heaven knows my so-called “lawn” could stand to be hidden away under a dense mat of, well, anything at this point. But if I left my leaves, they would end up blown down the street into someone else’s problem. Or the rain gutters. Those rain gutters don’t need the obstruction, thanks. I compost what I can, but the 60-year-old maple in front of my home is very productive. Even pre-shredding the leaves won’t reduce them enough to fit int my bins and beds and pathways.

  6. I also garden from California, and find that native-centric gardens look better year to year and recover well with an annual fall pruning and clean up. Especially with our gardens that have replaced lawns in from yards. Our central valley climate is so different from the east coast—no snow, lots of summer dormancy die back, and lots of dust. People who go for native gardens or a 50/50 garden even, want the garden to be ecologically beneficial. But they also want them to look attractive, and an annual clean up helps tremendously.

  7. I guess I’m blessed not to have to pick sides. I’m not on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or a part of some online gardening group with controversy as its middle name. Garden Rant is as controversial as I get. I walk to the beat of my own drummer.

  8. The very survival of our ecology depends on our individual plant choices to support insects, birds, and all wildlife, which, in turn, makes human life on this planet possible. You are way too cavalier about this issue–as though Forsythia (which has no nectar, no pollen, and is not a host plant for any insect species, and hence might just as well be plastic) and Shasta daisies are a fair trade-off for the insect apocalypse and the extinction of songbirds! I can only attribute your stance of ‘Do what you want — it’s all OK’ to willful ignorance, since I doubt that you are uninformed on these issues. I have many non-native plants in my garden, but every year I remove some and replace them with natives. I feel I’m doing my individual duty toward the salvation of life on earth.

    • Wish I had understood the Earth Systems I was seeing studying historic gardens across Europe for decades, 80’s – 90’s, earlier. Knew I loved them, and began to Garden Design in their style.

      Took another decade to realize it was ALL about pollinators.

      My ‘Tara Turf’, copied straight from European ‘meadow lawns’. Uses local weeds and what the wind blows in. How many HOA’s will allow this !! Have been the crazy woman Tara Turf for decades.

      Your words are dear and loving Jacquelyn.

      Garden & Be Well, Tara

    • Yowza! I think she only means there’s no point in assuming polarized Red/Blue state stances. Some will go all native, great. Some 50/50. Some gravel and pink flamingoes. I think becoming more aware of choices and possible repercussions is enough. All natives is great, but if you do fall cleanup you kill multiple pollinators that overwinter as larvae in dirt/leaves/stems. Half native and no fall cleanup would probably be more beneficial, or at least no worse. It’s all awareness and compromise; as everyone becomes more aware, the overall choices will be more beneficial than in the last 50 years. In the meantime, let’s not beat each other up.

    • I don’t disagree with your sentiment, but the coming apocalypse will not turn on individual homeowners with forsythia bushes. I think there are more productive uses of our concern and outrage—such as petitioning municipal and university gardens to switch to native plantings, or fighting our hyper industrialized agricultural system—than arguing with neighbors who plant exotics. Especially since a lot of times that decision is based on mere ignorance. The other day I overheard my neighbor include forsythia and mums in the list of “native” plants he plans to put in the place of the [actually native] plants he recently eradicated. Annoying, but not as frustrating as the fact that he literally works for the Trump campaign.

  9. Garden Design is a layer in best practices. Clueless why it’s not mentioned. What/where you plant, matters to maximum pollinator habitat.

    Maximum pollinator habitat is: meadow next to wildwood. Local plants.

    Maximum pollinator habitat increases crop yields up to 80%.

    Thousands of years, humans have gardened/farmed this way. Its beauty/effectiveness to Nature needed for Earth and our own thriving microbiomes. It’s said we have 3 pounds of Natures organisms on/in our bodies, helping keep us alive/healthy. About the same weight as our brain.

    Don’t forget Garden Design as an important layer of planting local.

    Garden & Be Well, Tara

  10. Then, there is that gray area about some plants, like Shasta daisies. Yes, originally that type of daisy was not a native to the US, but the Shasta itself is named for Mount Shasta in California, and was developed by Luther Burbank. Sort of a native then. Websites devoted to just pollinator plants sell it, so it’s of immense value in the garden. I tore mine out, not because they were non-native, but they just got too big. I have the cute little “Angel” variety. Loads of daisies, but not a lot of space. As to buddleia, in my state there are laws about what kind we can cultivate, so I don’t bother.

    Do I want just natives, at the expense of great pollinator plants? No. I also want plants that I enjoy.
    And, what is a “native?” Native to the prairies of North America? Native to the foothills of the Cascades?

    I’m one of the fall clean-up gardeners. But, my gardening is nearly 100% raised beds and I don’t have deciduous trees, so I don’t have a leaf problem. Except getting leaves as mulch, which I actually get from neighbors and free on Craigslist! When I had leaves on a lawn (rental, I couldn’t take out the lawn, another big argument for gardeners!) I had a mulching mower. Best of both worlds, clean-up AND leaving the leaves!

  11. I used to judge front yard gardens for a city wide awards program. My area included neighbourhoods where people had struggles with poverty and other challenges. I am happy when people plant ANYTHING, including Shasta daisies. I see other yards where people obviously have the resources to have a garden but have nothing but dying grass. This even though the city (Hamilton, Ontario) gives out free trees-and they have a fine selection of natives and non-natives. So many people see gardens as a chore, or overwhelming, but Covid seems to have sparked a new interest gardening. Maybe the daisy growers will move on to native plants, in the meantime I am happy to see people shopping at nurseries, planting and beautifying neighbourhoods.

  12. The battle royale between native or non native, cut back or not, clear the leaves or let lie, just does not seem to be happening where I live. Those with gardens do as they will. And us passersby just take delight that in an urban landscape, some home owners still have a small garden.

  13. For Elizabeth L. – I wanted to mention, since that Joe pye weed has become so large, why not consider just “pinching”/trimming back in the spring? That way you could leave it in place, but have a 4 ft stand of Joe pye instead of a looming monster!

    • You have a lot of options to choose from for tree service in Tucson, and many of them are just as highly qualified as we are.

      Our only desire is to give you the skills you need to transform your outdoor space into the reflection of your values and personality it should be. We know you’ll love our service and how your trees will look after our work is complete.

  14. You have a lot of options to choose from for tree service in Tucson, and many of them are just as highly qualified as we are.

    Our only desire is to give you the skills you need to transform your outdoor space into the reflection of your values and personality it should be. We know you’ll love our service and how your trees will look after our work is complete.

  15. Good post and always a polarizing discussion between gardeners. I’m a fall cleanup person for two reasons – the snowblower deposits feet of snow over most of my beds in the winter and I don’t encourage wildlife to come snack in my yard because they think the entire thing is a smorgasbord.


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