Winterizing the Native Garden, A Closer Look at the Season’s Leftovers

The native plant landscape is very dynamic in that you can put as much or as little into the cultivation, each approach having its own results. Native plants are excellent choices for any landscape as they help to filter and clean storm water year-round and can improve our watershed landscape and give great flexibility in the garden.  For example, you can trim back, cut down, snip and pull out the old stems of yesterdays bounty, knowing that you can look forward to a vibrant, healthy, colorful bouquet in the spring and summer…OR you can do nothing and let nature take its course, and revisit in the Spring when you know that whatever survived, was meant to be and will have the honor of remaining in your landscape.

Winter Grasses

 Nature’s “leftovers” can provide stunning visual interest and wildlife benefits

Photo: The Garden Glove

Each approach has its own rewards. Prepping and pruning back helps plants to grow healthier and larger, but leaving the garden “as is” can offer resources to our little friends such as shelter, food, nesting grounds and protection. Did you know that if you skip deadheading on perennials such as Purple Coneflowers, Anise Hyssop and Black-eyed Susans that the American Goldfinch likes to feed on the seed heads!

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch feeding on seed heads

Photo: Patricia Sutton

A Monarch chrysalis could be attached to that stem you were about to remove! Next year’s butterflies are in the winter garden as eggs, partially grown caterpillars in curled up leaves, or as chrysalises attached to still-standing perennial stalks.


Monarch chrysalis

Photo: Woods Walks and Wildlife Blog

Rake leaves?  Consider this- many of our butterflies (and moths) winter in leaf litter as partially grown caterpillars or as a chrysalis! For example, the Luna Moth lays it’s eggs on Sweet Gum leaves.  The caterpillar feeds on the leaves until it is full size, then wraps a leaf around itself and silks the leaf shut creating a cocoon with the pupa inside. The caterpillar has not silked the leaf to the tree, like some of the other silk moths.  And when the leaves fall to the ground in the late fall, so does the Luna Moth cocoon.  It winters safely in under all the accumulated leaves.  In the spring the adult Luna Moth emerges from this cocoon.

Luna Moth

Luna Moth

Photo: Sarah Furchner

So what to do out there? Short, easy tasks can be accomplished for either style gardener that can suffice both approaches to winterizing a native plant landscape, while honoring the wildlife that will utilize our garden’s leftovers.

  • Divide and transplant native perennials, double your plants!
  • To keep your garden neat, cut back some perennials to 8 inches above ground. But, be sure to leave plenty for visual interest and food for birds during the winter. Be on the watch for chrysalis too!
  • After the first frost, add about 4 inches of loose mulch such as dried leaves or shredded bark to help maintain soil moisture.
  • Leave grasses for winter interest and wildlife cover, cut back to 8” in late winter, early spring.
  • Winter can be very dry, so water your garden thoroughly before the ground freezes.


Continue to plant all kinds of low-water native plants, shrubs and trees. The cooler weather and rains give the plants time to establish a healthy and extensive root system in preparation for next summer.

For a list of natives you can plant all the way through December:


Take your camera into the garden. This is a lovely time of year to admire the architecture of trees and shrubs that lose their leaves in fall and admire the structures of our native wildflowers and grasses!

Rain Garden at NWACC

Visual interest in the Fall — Rain Garden at Northwest Arkansas Community College 




Get Wild, Go Native! The Nature Conservancy

Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens


Related Posts:

Watershed Landscape: Rain Gardens, A Blooming Good Idea!

Watershed Landscape: Top 10 Native Plants to Plant for Fall