Maintaining Composure while Decomposing

Plants are like people in many ways. They are "born", they age, and they die. Along the way, they slowly decompose. Like people, some plants age gracefully, and some seem to decompose overnight. According to the The Free Online Dictionary, the word "decompose" means "to separate into components or basic elements", "to rot or decay", "to break down (organic matter) or (of organic matter) to be broken down physically and chemically by bacterial or fungal action; rot".  It also means "to break down naturally through the action of biological agents". All things decompose sooner or later.  Some things like plastics and all of our consumer wastes filling our landfills will take years, if not many centuries to do so. 

Hostas and ferns decompose very quickly. 
By spring there will be no sign of their leaves in the garden.

These geraniums will provide green and then bronze groundcover until midwinter, then they will start to decompose in preparation for new leaves next spring.

This Russian Sage will hold its stature and brown leaves through the winter, for structural interest until late spring, when the dead leaves will fall, and the new leaf buds appear.

Upclose of Russian Sage frost bitten leaves, and sturdy stalks.

Lavender Cotton (Santolina) will hold its leaves all winter, whereas the leaves of the Coneflower (Echinacea) have already started decomposing for the season.

Our gardens are perfect places to allow Mother Nature her way of plant decomposition and soil renewal.  Nature has thousands of biological agents to help do the job in a most efficient manner.  In a previous post on Earthworms, I brought up many of the reasons to let nature do this for us, instead of us trying to clean the gardens.  If a plant will be decomposed by the springtime, and give back to the soil naturally, why on earth should we clean it up?

Gambel Oak leaves fall naturally into these gardens, where they will stay till spring, slowly decomposing and providing a thermal blanket at the same time.  In the spring they get a trip to the compost pile.

Ants will look for food here in preparation for the winter.

But what if we want some composure in our gardens while still allowing decomposition of last year's plants?  Can we have it both ways?  That depends on how willing you are to compromise.  Some types of plants do better when you cut down their stalks, to prevent diseases from moving into their roots or bulbs.  Asiatic and Oriental lilies are good examples.  I cut the stalks down after they have turned brown, and put them in the compost pile.  The resulting garden looks a bit neater.

Lilies in between lavender will be cut down now.  They have stored enough nutrients in the bulbs for next year and the stalks will grow anew from the base.

Many shrubs and grasses look best when left unpruned for the winter. Their flowers and leaves make for interesting compositions, and provide the eye with the stark beauty of the plants' forms not seen when the leaves are green and the blossoms are colorful.

Blue Mist Spirea holds its seed heads gracefully all winter (this is not invasive where I live!)

Siberian Iris leaves provide winter interest as well as food for the deer

Autumn Joy Sedum seed heads will also look beautiful all winter. Who wants to look at a flat garden for 5 months of the year?  Not me.

Decomposition in the woods is an easier thing to let happen, since it looks very natural that way. Mother Nature doesn't have a person come through and cut down dead grasses, diseased plants, or dying trees.  The wooded area surrounding our house is left alone in the fall, and by spring the grasses will grow up through the nutrient rich piles of decomposing plant debris from last year. 

This wood pile has been "decomposing" now for about 5 years. It is used by the foxes and other wildlife for shelter and security, eaten by ants and bugs, and pecked on by woodpeckers, nuthatches, and other birds.

By spring these native grasses will fall gracefully back into the earth, and new blades will start again.

Thinking about how things decompose, it's helpful to understand what factors help speed or slow the process. Fungi, bacteria, heat, moisture, temperature, and light all play parts in how fast any living thing falls apart. Take our skin for example. Lack of moisure results in dry, cracked skin, which is more prone to itching, and thus provides a way for bacteria to enter, causing disease and/or decay. Too much moisture, and our skin starts to sweat, get oily, and need washing to keep the bacteria at bay. Too much light, and our skin becomes sunburnt and and shows its' decomposing age quicker. Too little light, and fungi thrive, spreading disease.

Plant leaves and stems react similarly. Areas with lots of humidity and moisture tend to have plants that decompose very quickly, often in a slimy, gooey mess. Not a pretty sight. On the other hand, decomposition of plants in the desert takes a long time, and shows up as mostly shriveled leaves. So, keeping composure in the garden depends a lot on where you live.  Do your gardens "age gracefully"?


  1. Lovely post, and spot on. We let most of our plants age gracefully over winter ..and clean up what's left in the spring. We have very sandy soil, and every little bit helps.

  2. Hi Kathy,
    A great informative post! I almost wanted to take a shower after I read it though! :)
    Sometimes the elk trim things down for me.

  3. Kathy,
    Interesting post. We usually don't get a good hard freeze (usually many small ones). I've tried to leave some things up over winter but they don't decompose as nicely as yours do! Even in the back of the yard, I want all the leaves to stay there to start making their magic but somehow they all blow away. I do like your Russian Sage - it's gorgeous. I leave the grasses up all winter but we don't get the lovely blanket of snow on them like you do. :-)

  4. Hello,
    I’m one of those people that likes to clean up as much as possible before the first snow. As spring is very busy season, I’m always afraid that I will not have time to do it all then. Perhaps I should try and leave some things as they are and see how it goes.

  5. Hi Kathy! This is an excellent post! Very informative and easy to read. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks you!!! About Russian sage - it's interesting, but mine never gets its leaves brown. I'll look at it tomorrow one more time, just to be sure.

  6. Hi Kathy,
    We really do have very different climates. In Central Florida, as you probably know, we stay 'green' all year. There is very little to leave for winter interest as plants just keep rejuvenating all year long. Of course that's why we can't grow some of the lovely flowers you can since they don't have a chance for that cold and dormancy period here.
    I do have compost all year long. Everything that goes in does decomposes quite quickly.
    I did enjoy seeing all your photos and reading this post.
    Happy Thanksgiving.

  7. Susan, glad to hear that you take the natural approach to garden cleanup!

    Rosey, sorry about the "yuk" descriptions, most of the time decomposing is not a pretty subject. I bet the elk prune way too much for you!

    Jean, you are lucky that you have more green year round then we do. I do really like the golds/browns and whites of our winter landscapes though. If only they didn't last quite so long each year. Your blog is very nice to visit, especially this time of year when you still have blooms.

    vrtlarica, thanks for stopping by. Spring is a very busy season. But since there would be cleanup for me in the spring as well as the fall, I let some of it take care of itself.


  8. Tatyana, you're welcome, and thanks for visiting. I think the Russian Sage turns brown here due to our very low temperatures early in the season. In other places I would guess it might stay more silver looking.

    Hi Meems, Happy Thanksgiving to you also! Your gardens are so beautiful to look at, and make me wish for a trip to the warm climates. Composting all year long must be nice - our compost piles tend to freeze up during the winter, and start cooking again in the springtime.


  9. Really enjoyed your pictures of dead plants. It is nice to know I am not the only one who appreciates this kind of thing. The way nature recycles everything should be a lesson to us. In fact, I find the concept of "cleaning up" a garden kind of weird, though I fully appreciate the need to tidy up and tend a garden. I guess we all have to reach the balance that we are comfortable with.

  10. Bravo! I feel the same way you do. Decomposition is natural and beautiful in it's own way. I can't stand gardens that are raked clean of every twig and leaf. You're stealing the natural food of the plants! I always believe that it is better to imitate nature than the fight her.


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