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Time to tuck your garden to sleep?

For years, we gardeners were told we should spend the last glorious days of fall cleaning up our yards. Remove dead foliage; deadhead spent flowers; get rid of old seed pods and dried berries; remove old plants from the vegetable garden; rake all the leaves. In general, make everything pristine and shiny. So much work! The result was a rather Spartan landscape throughout the winter months, but all of this work was supposed to keep disease and insects at bay. It was good for us and for the garden. I’ve followed this pattern for years and felt guilty now and then when I failed to remove every last dead leaf.

But conventional wisdom periodically changes and a new “rule” takes effect. And that’s exactly what’s happening now with the annual fall garden cleaning frenzy. According to the new way of thinking, we should leave Echinacea and other seed heads so birds can feed on them during late autumn and early winter when food can be scarce. We should also delay cleaning up dead perennial foliage so birds and small animals can shelter in it. Raking all of the leaves is also at least partially optional. The new paradigm suggests leaving them in borders and beds at least until early spring.

Old Christmas trees? Don’t discard them; toss them into a wild corner of your yard and let wildlife use them for shelter. In other words, messy is all right, and it’s fine to delay at least some of your annual tidying up until early spring.

There’s an aesthetic benefit to this approach, too. The seed heads of dragon’s blood sedum, for example, add color and texture to an otherwise barren winter landscape. Tall grasses bedecked with snow add a magical quality to the garden. Brightly colored rose hips dusted with frost are also exquisite.

So … consider adopting the new conventional wisdom and allowing your yard to be at least a little unkempt looking. The birds and small animals will thank you and you may even find that you like the added textures in your otherwise naked perennial borders. Besides, you can always tell yourself you’re just spacing your annual yard-cleaning spree over a longer period of time. And that means you’ll have more time to dream over all those seed catalogs that are beginning to arrive in the mail. Tuck your garden in for the winter, but leave the covers a bit rumpled this year. Slightly sloppy is the new perfection.

Cynthia Wood is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Farmville Herald. Her email address is cynthia.crewe23930@gmail.com.