The neat and tidy winter garden is for many a thing of the past. Gardeners interested in wildlife habitat realize that perennial and annual flower seedheads are a boon for birds, and that many kinds of moths and butterflies overwinter in leaf litter. With these considerations in mind, it’s time to rethink the way we prepare our gardens for winter.

There are things we can do that will result in healthier soil, an aesthetically pleasing winter garden, and a wildlife friendly environment as well. A few key points:

Don’t rush it.

Your plants have different tolerances to cold and frost, so preparing your garden for winter is a process, not a once- and-done operation. Start by removing dead and diseased plants, selectively leaving seed-bearing stalks of annual and perennial plants such as Echinacea, Rudbeckia, Cosmos, and Sunflowers standing. Not only will this result in a more bird- friendly garden, it will make your winter landscape more varied and interesting.

Make good use of fallen leaves.

Fallen leaves are a great garden resource, so keep them on your property! You can allow the leaves that collect under shrubs to remain where they are until spring to provide habitat for various insect species. Rather than raking the lawn, consider running over leaves with your mower, leaving the choppings in place to improve the lawn environment, or raking and using them as a topper for your vegetable garden soil. Another option is to add them to your compost pile, and still another is to bag the leaves and layer them with food scraps and other “greens” over the course of the following year.

Discard diseased plant debris.

Break the cycles of diseases by bagging and discarding diseased tomato, squash and other annual and perennial plant debris rather than adding it to your compost. In combination with a 3-year rotation schedule, this will help keep disease and insect problems under control. If plants are not diseased, you can cut them at the base so roots stay in the ground, and then chop the plant debris with pruners or a shovel and bury it in the soil.

Make notes about garden successes and failures.

You may think you will remember such things as which plants had the most abundant harvests, or where you planted what in your vegetable garden, or when each of your tomato varieties yielded their first fruits. But take it from a veteran gardener, you probably won’t. The best time to record your garden information is when its fresh in your mind. Make a sketch of your vegetable garden, note your most successful ornamental and edible varieties, and make memos on the whereabouts of any new perennial plants. You’ll thank yourself next year.

Plant a cover crop.

Cover crops are not just for commercial farms. Oats, winter rye, clovers and other cover crops are great soil improvers in the off-season. A general rule of thumb in regions that have cold winters is to plant cover crops about a month before the first killing frost. You can plant the seeds even before you take out the last of your crop plants by simply sowing it around your remaining plants. Some cover crops—oats, for example—die back on their own. Others push out vigorous new growth in spring. Turn the green material under a couple of weeks before you plant your garden for a nitrogen boost and improved soil structure.