Don’t spring into garden cleanup too soon!

Spring is here. A time when warmer weather naturally turns a winter-weary homeowner’s thoughts towards tackling outdoor chores. The first warm weather of the season may coax us out into the yard, but pollinators in your garden aren’t ready to take a chance on the first warm day. Chrysalides still cling to last season’s dried standing plant material. While you may begin to see bumble bees and ground-nesting bees emerge as flowering trees and shrubs burst into bloom, they still need cover during chilly nights and when “April brings the sweet spring showers, on and on for hours and hours.” While mining bees, mason bees, carpenter bees, and bumble bees may be out and about by early April, others species such as sweat bees are still hiding out, waiting for the warmer days that arrive in May. Meanwhile, last year’s leaf litter is still providing protection for both plants and invertebrates against late-season frosts.

Don’t take away the crucial habitat invertebrates need to tough out the erratic weather of early spring!

So when is the right time to unleash your itchy green thumbs and reach for the rake? Unfortunately there isn’t a hard and fast answer to this question, and the exact date will vary based upon where you are in the country. To offer some guidance, consider the following:

This eastern black swallowtail pupae does a great job blending in with the landscape, looking like a dried leaf or bit of plant material – easy to miss when tidying up your spring garden. Give it the time it needs to complete its lifecycle! Photo by Mary Anne Borge, The Natural Web

Have I put away the snow shovel, mittens, and winter coats?

If you haven’t tempted fate yet by relegating the snow shovel to the back of the garage, and if you’re still wearing wool socks and long underwear – it’s too early. Go make some hot chocolate and keep knitting that scarf you’ve been working on all winter.

Have I paid my taxes?

In northern states mid-late April should be the earliest you consider cutting back perennials and clearing garden debris. Keep in mind that some bees don’t emerge until late May, so the longer you can tolerate your “messy” garden the better.

Would I plant tomatoes now?

Any gardener will tell you it’s not a good idea to plant your tomatoes outdoors until evening temperatures are reliably in the 50s. The tender tomato will shut down and suspend growth and fruiting if subjected to temperatures below 50 degrees or above 90 degrees. If it’s time to plant tomatoes in your area, chances are conditions are neither too hot nor too cold for pollinators to be out and about.

Is it time to mow?

Cool-season lawns begin growing when soil temperatures reach 50 degrees. In all but the warmest climates, if it’s time to regularly mow your lawn, it’s probably a safe bet that most pollinators have emerged.

Are apples and pears finished blooming?

Apricot, peach, plum, and cherry trees are the earliest to bloom, coinciding with the emergence of many ground-nesting bees. According to the guide Wild Pollinators of Eastern Apple Orchards, apple and pear trees bloom between mid-April and mid-May. If you can manage to wait until apple trees are no longer in bloom – you should be safely in the clear from disturbing pollinators and interrupting their important work!

Source: Wild Pollinators of Eastern Apple Orchards, 2nd Ed.


We get it, it’s tough to turn a blind eye to the “messy” garden, especially when gardening magazines, catalogs, and TV ads provide temptation daily. Each spring we beg gardeners and homeowners to press pause and find other ways to occupy their weekends. Instead of disturbing critical habitat read a book, do a jigsaw puzzle, do your taxes, tidy up the garage, or clean the gutters. While you may be eager to get outside and play in the garden – there will be time enough to toil in the soil before you know it!

By Justin Wheeler, Web and Communications Specialist