Saturday, September 30, 2017

Love Birds and Pollinators? Don't Clean the Fall Garden by Carol King

Most gardeners love having birds and pollinators visit their gardens. Many of us are actively planting pollinator habitats, while feeding the birds just goes with the territority! As the garden season ends, most of us think fall is the time to tidy the garden. Recent science tells us this is not the case if we want to promote both pollinators and bird habitat.  Here are several things you don’t need to do in the fall:

Don’t Rake the leaves.

  • Leaves rot and enrich the soil and they can act as mulch in your perennial beds. Mulch helps to protect the roots and maintains much needed moisture for winter survival.
  • Birds forage for food in leaves because they harbor insects and their eggs and larvae. A healthy layer of undisturbed soil and leaf litter means more moths which in their caterpillar phase are a crucial food source for birds. Birds feed their young almost exclusively on caterpillars regardless of the bird species. They consume thousands of caterpillars and other pest insects as they raise their young every gardening season. Did you know the more insect-nurturing habitat you have, the greater the bird population will be?
  • Leaves provide home for praying mantises, spiders, ladybugs, many butterfly species, and countless species of beneficial insects. Cleaning up causes casualties in these insects who eat the bad guys.
  • Using a mulching mower on leaves and leaving them on the lawn will nourish your grass providing free fertilizer.
Don’t Cut Down Perennials. 

  • Seed heads of coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, and other native wildflowers provide a helpful food cache for birds. Birds eat these seeds all winter long.  Native species like bluestems or gramas make for good foraging after they go to seed. When we cut back the seed heads and stalks, we deprive birds and small mammals of seeds.
  • Many native bee species spend the winter as pupae within the pithy stems of perennials. They may hunker down under a piece of peeling tree bark, or they may stay tucked away in the hollow stem of a bee balm plant or an ornamental grass. Dead plants also harbor lots of species of insect larvae. Much of the insect community is spending winter in debris. 
  • Many butterfly chrysalises can be found either hanging from dead plant stems or tucked into the soil or leaf litter. If you are worried about decreased butterfly populations don’t clean the garden.
  • Leaving perennials standing will help them gather snow. That snow in turn will insulate the roots when it gets really cold and also add moisture to the soil. Leaving the plants in place allows the debris to fall between and around the plants.  This material will protect the plants during the cold and snows of winter and then break down and feed the plants throughout the growing season.
  • Many native plant seeds need cold stratification or to spend a period of time in the cold and moist in order to germinate in the spring.
Don't Haul Away the Brush.

  • Using fallen branches and other detritus to build a brush pile will shelter birds from foul weather and predators.  Wintering birds will appreciate the protection from the elements. Other wildlife also will take refuge there. Keep the pile all year: it will settle and decompose over the seasons ahead, making room for next year’s additions. It’s a great place to dispose of the Christmas tree.

Do Mother Nature and your back a big favor and save your garden clean up until the spring. Think of it as providing "winter interest" and something beautiful to look at during the cold season. Winter interest is also for birds, butterflies, ladybugs,and soil microbes all making the garden healthier for summer. Winter is not a dead time in the garden at all.  It is a lovely time, if you let it be so.

Addition information on No Fall Cleanup: