The Brown, Brown Stalks of Spring

As I have noted before, I am of the camp that believes in letting perennials stand over winter, then cleaning up in spring. It tends to be better for the birds, the plants, and the beneficial insects. Some people say it looks messy. They may have a point, but I prefer messy to bare frozen earth, which I find depressing.

Virginia Wild Rye
Grasses are among the easier plants to clean up in spring. This is Virginia Wild Rye.

There is still the question of what to do with the dead stalks that remain when the snow melts, like ghosts of gardens past. For ghosts, they are very bulky. If you have a lot of space planted with perennials, as I do, you can generate a fairly massive quantity of what my younger son refers to as “dead stalky things”.

There are two solutions that I find unsatisfactory: the compost pile and the yard waste bag. What remains of perennials plants is mostly cellulose (if I remember my botany correctly),  which will not compost well unless it has been shredded. I have been tempted to buy a shredder/chipper, but hate the idea of a gasoline powered tool in the garage.

Putting this stuff in the alley as yard waste to be picked up by the city seems just wrong. I have used the approach of placing bundles of stalks in out of the way places in the garden, to break down in nature’s own time. However, there is a limit to how much you can do this on an urban lot.

Goldenrod stalks in the back garden.

This year I am trying an approach that my brother suggested to me: just cut back the perennials in lengths of 6″ or so, and let the stalky bits fall where they may. I started putting this approach into practice last weekend, even though it was dang cold. So far I have drawn the following tentative conclusions:


  • Good exercise for your wrists and arms.
  • Gives you a head start on getting mulch down on the beds.
  • You don’t have to wrestle stuff into yard waste bags.
  • You are not generating solid waste.


  • It’s a lot more work.
  • Your beds will look messier, at least initially.
  • You are inviting more volunteers from self-sowers.
  • Soil may warm more slowly with if covered with more organic material.

Most of these disadvantages don’t bother me too much. For one thing, I like my garden to be at least a little messy. I suspect, though, that I won’t be able to let all the dead plant material lie on the beds, that I’ll have to pile some in out of the way corners as I have done in the past. But for now I am content to see how this approach works out.

What about you – how do you dispose of the brown, brown stalks of spring?

55 Comments on “The Brown, Brown Stalks of Spring”

  1. This old legally blind birder prefers using nature’s method. Unfortunately this is illegal in most areas. As an old prairie volunteer at Ray Schulenberg’s Morton Arboretum prairie and at Fermi Lab, I prefer to “burn baby, burn”. I just have a few prairie favorites (Indian grass, Big bluestem and Northern dropseed), that I try to cut back while there is still a little snow cover. I crumple up the dried stalks into a pile right over each grass clump and on a calm day, sneak out and carefully burn each plant. So far the city hasn’t caught me.

  2. This is a great topic…I like the idea of letting them fall where they are. Although with my large plants such as catmint it would be extremely messy. In the past I have let things fall, put things in a pile in the back corner (the birds use them for nests-we watched one afternoon as a bird went to the pile and then back to the tree for an hour!) and lastly I have bagged some stuff which I don’t feel great about but am open to new ideas when it comes to this. Thank for bringing up this topic. I look forward to the responses!

  3. I compost it without shredding. I’m a slow compost kind of person – just pile it up, let it sit for 6-12 months, sift out the black gold. If you can get hold of a little manure, layering it in with the bulky stuff will break everything down really fast. I recently read an article on how good human urine is for the compost pile, but have not gone there myself.

  4. We’re really fortunate here, in Colorado Springs, to have a huge recycling facility (privately owned and operated at a profit) that takes everything from pallets to old cedar fences to grass clippings to leaves to limbs. Everything is piled by category, shredded, and turned into mulch and composty material. It’s a fascinating and useful solution.

  5. Yes, let me know how that works out. I also leave all of my stalks up until spring. I have more space so I’m able to toss them on a pile. I have been using the grasses in my vegetable garden paths as a way to keep things tidy. Happy Spring Jason.~~Dee

  6. The woodier cuttings or shrub prunings I try to cut in six inch lengths and put in hidden spots and cover with other mulch. The perennials I mow, some in the fall the rest in the spring. Some stuff, like tall grasses and vines I cut down in the spring I place in a big pile and lawn mower shred and blow back into the border beds. Our village does have a great turn around on picked up and shredded shrubbery (wood chips) and also a municipal dump site where the picked up shrubbery is chipped and composted.We use our big road equipment to turn out pile. Gardeners are welcome to any compost they want to transport back. If the pile gets too big, a local farmer picks up the compost and turns it into his soil in the late spring/early summer. (just before corn planting time). Only drawback is if it goes to the municipal site, I’m not getting the nutrient value in my garden, unless I scoop up some and bring it back. Although when chipping, I can get the neighborhood’s chippings dumped in my drive..

  7. I totally agree with your first paragraph! We have a drained pond at the end of our garden which has become our compost heap – basically a garden rubbish heap… we’ll probably never use it, as it rots down so slowly. The communities here offer shredding – they shred as much as you like at your garden gate and you can have as much of it back as you want for mulching, and all for a few Euros!

  8. I always let the perennials stand over winter. They look great with frost on, and it also protects the plants . I have also read that you should cut them into smaller pieces and incorporate them into the soil. It is a big job, but satisfying as you know your plants will love you for it.

  9. This is indeed a dilemma. I have a big (something like 10 ft by 4 ft rectangular area) leaf-weed-brown-stalks-compost pile at the back of my backyard. I put everything there. With all the leaves and snow and water, they are composting. But, I have to admit that I started all these since 2010. So, maybe still manageable but might not remain so in the future. However, our municipality has a big compost area. Anyone in the town can gather all these compost material and dump there.

  10. I’m a neat freak, so leaving the stalks in the beds would drive me nuts. But then, I don’t think you want to compost it either unless you get the pile hot enough to kill the seeds. I think the answer is a chiminea or fire bowl. (No sir, officer, it’s not a bonfire, just makin’ a few s’mores.)

  11. I have a friend in Quebec who simply breaks everything at the base; pushes it backward; and lets the garden grow through and has for years. His soil is fabulous. Once stuff starts to grow – it’s a jungle in a week or two (the joys of short growing seasons). Many good insects need little hidy holes. Those fallen tubes are perfect for them. I do a cleanup in the spring, but am leaving many more leaves – it’s lovely to work along side all the wee soil creatures to see them dragging bits of last year’s oak leaves down into the soil with them.

  12. To delete: Jason – apologies – that administratorfabuloushomes is Barbarasgardenchronicles – unfortunately wordpress won’t allow me to post and name myself as a blogger person…the wordpress site was established for my husband’s business – have even tried to delete the site to free myself, alas no luck.

  13. I leave most up through winter and cut back some to about a foot (monarda, grasses, coreposis, others) to support tender new growth and protect/warm through winter. Some is shredded for compost. The compost needs both brown and greens, and it does take longer, but it eventually will compost. It is why I have three bins. One is always ready in Spring. The other two by Fall. I prefer the mess too.

  14. I always let my plants stand through the winter too. One of the reasons for clearing out the dead stuff though is to avoid passing on any disease that might be present. Dead plant stalks and leaves can carry quite a lot of diseases, depending on the type of plant. Peonies, for instance, are famous for this, so I always clean things up in spring before any new growth appears.

  15. Like you, I let most things stand during the winter. I’ve been cutting back from the base and tossing the piles into a big, unsightly pile near the woods in my back yard, but I love the idea of cutting things off in small pieces and letting them fall where they may. I’m sold (even if it does mean pulling some seedlings later on).

  16. Like so many others who have responded, I also let my dead perennials and grasses remain over the winter. I love the idea of cutting the stalks into 6″ pieces and letting them lie as mulch and a form of sheet compost…but the truth is that my thumb joints have become quite painful in the last few years and extra cutting with pruners just is more than I can face these days. So any disease-free, perennial debris with seeds that I don’t mind scattering goes into the compost bin and any debris with seeds that I’d rather NOT see spreading in any form goes into the burn pile.

  17. I am fortunate to have a large property, and we have a couple of large compost piles. We just pile them on and let it all slowly rot. We also have a compost bin, and smaller armfuls can go in there. I have sometimes dreamed of a chipper/shredder, but it is way down on the priority list.

  18. Also Jason, thanks for visiting and commenting on my Burkwood viburnum post. You asked how its fragrance compared to Korean spice. I have a Korean spice viburnum, and it is hard for me to tell the difference. In fact, Korean spice is one of the parents of Burkwood.

  19. We’re very lucky living on a rural property I have plenty of places to dispose of my garden waste. Like you I leave the dead stalks throughout winter and usually do a big clean up in spring. Last spring though I got a bit lazy and missed some spots. It was interesting to find that very quickly those dead stalks (depending on the plant) were overtaken by new growth and disappeared into the garden soil quickly on their own.

  20. I have been struggling with the goal of providing food for the birds during the winter and how to better manage my garden to reduce the work and the unintended consequences. I am glad to see someone else is struggling with these questions and has not found any perfect answers. Keep the information coming…

  21. I am fascinated by this as I leave my plants up all winter…I do compost much of it and it does take a while to break down although the grass clippings helps some…but I love this idea. I leave the unshredded leaves on the beds and they do not impede the plants from growing and they keep lots of insects in the garden for birds who fling the leaves around. I find the leaves break down by mid to late summer…so the other plant material may also work as mulch…I’ll let you know.

  22. dear Jason, such an interesting post. I do similarly to you – I leave big lumps of mulch and long stalks on the garden hoping they’ll disappear and become beautiful compost. When they don’t, and I can’t stand it any more, I put them in the compost bin. I didn’t know cellulose doesn’t break down. Actually I think I did know but repressed it as an inconvenient truth.

  23. Hi Jason, that’s interesting – we have a composting bin that we put the garden waste in (and anything compostable) and the council will pick up and take it away each fortnight. Due to the quantities, they can create “hot” compost in large piles, which we can buy back to put in the garden. As for the dead perennials, I leave them at first, but then by late winter, I they’re looking really battered and I give in and let me neat side have a go at taking it all down to soil level and tidying it all up for the imminent Spring.

  24. My garden is quite small so I don’t have major clean-up issues but it seems like I am losing more perennials her in the mountains than I did in Maryland. For example, I’ve never had a coneflower come back. I wonder about the quality of some of these plants (my roses are fine.) But I will keep trying!

  25. I have several low spots in my grass where the lawn turns muddy in the winter. I use the stalks/grasses, etc as a sponge to absorb the extra water. It gets broken down as we walk across it before it’s eventually mowed into tiny bits. I leave as many stalks up as possible over winter. A flat bare garden is depressing to me, too.

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