More and more gardeners, HOA committees, and conservation groups are recognizing the benefits of leaving fall cleanup until spring. Leaves on the ground and dried flower heads on stalk help a myriad of insects, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and songbirds. Who knew lazy gardening could be so environmentally friendly? All it takes is rearranging what we perceive as an attractive yard.
HABITATS AND HIDING HOLES
Leaving leaves where they fall provides great cover for small organisms looking for shelter from the winter elements. The leaf litter acts as an insulating blanket and protection for ground and cavity nesting bees, butterflies, and wasps.
In fact, some native butterflies and moths have even adapted their chrysalises to look like dried leaves and seeds. Most of these insects hatch in early spring and provide pollination for early blooming flowers. These insects are also necessary food for small birds and herpetons (i.e. amphibians and reptiles) trying to make it through the hungry months of early spring.
Standing, dead, or dormant plants also benefit wildlife. Some native bees and wasps nest underground, but others require trees, logs, rotting wood, and the hollow stems of plants like purple coneflower and goldenrod species. Besides beneficial insects, the standing cover becomes great shelter for nearly all small animals. Additionally, the seeds from dead flower heads are a nutrient-rich food birds and small mammals rely on to get them through the winter.
Not removing leaves and spent foliar plants from the ground also adds organic material and nutrients back into the soil. Microorganisms and macroorganisms requisite for soil health utilize these materials and make nutrients and vitamins more readily available for next year’s plantings.
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Beneficial bacteria and fungi thrive in gardens rich in nitrogen and carbon—both of which are replaced in the soil when leaves and other green plant parts break down.
There have been times when I’ve added layers of leaves to garden beds and a few days later watched those leaves shift around because of the sheer number of red wigglers beneath them. If you have a lawn, however, here is a word of caution: leaf piles greater than three inches can kill lawns and should either be raked over the grass lightly or removed to other sections of the yard.
An added benefit of leaving spent flower heads on your standing plants is that their seeds can reseed an area.
Letting seeds dry on the plant ensures you have seeds to save for next year or to spread throughout your garden immediately. Letting flowers go to seed not only recolonizes your garden but also provides much-needed food to small wildlife. In fact, some seeds need to pass through an animal’s gut in order to germinate. Raspberries and other bramble fruits are good examples of this.
If, for whatever reason, it’s impossible for you to let your yard spend the fall and winter in an untidy state, consider these options for cleanup. First, bag your leaves and foliar plant material in separate, clear sacks and leave them on the curb for your neighbors to use. Adding a note indicating the sacks are for the taking will help gardeners haul the leaves home for their garden beds and compost. Allow others to repurpose what you could not. Second, cluster your detritus leaves and spent garden foliage in out-of-the-way areas where they won’t be seen or disturbed. Raking your leaves to the base of perennial plants and trees can protect the roots from some cold as well as add nutrients to your permanent plants once the leaves break down. If clustering spent plants is still impossible, consider delineating the area with a low fence, a wildlife habitat sign, or anything to show the unkempt area is deliberate.
By reframing what is good yard-keeping and what isn’t, we can take part in helping recover declining species and increasing the world’s biodiversity without ever leaving our own backyards.