Fall is my favorite time of year to be out and about, though the daylight and sunshine available for playing outside is in shorter supply. I’m all about maximizing fun before winter comes. The last thing on my mind is yard clean up. It always snows before I get to it, therefore all the leaves and vegetative litter, the seed heads, dead stems and brush are left until spring.
It turns out, though, that being a lazy gardener creates great habitat for overwintering wildlife. So I wear my “lazy gardener” title with pride, or rather call myself a “habitat gardener.” If you’d like to wear one of these titles, here are some tips and reasons to work less and play more in the fall.
The Xerces Society is running a social media campaign to #leavetheleaves. It lists winter cover among the three most important things you can do for pollinators, along with providing native plants and not using pesticides. A cover of fall leaves provides camouflage and insulation for invertebrates in all stages of lifecycle. The diversity of stages and techniques utilized by butterflies and moths is astounding. We’ve all seen the iconic woolly bear caterpillar. Have you ever exposed the little curled bundle while clearing leaves? Try to tuck it back under some vegetative cover. Some butterflies, like the mourning cloak, overwinter as adults in leaf litter or a woody cavity. A tiger swallowtail, however, remains in the chrysalis, possibly suspended from a dry leaf or on the ground. Still others lay eggs in the fall to hatch in the spring. Bumbles and other native bees will burrow just a few inches into the soil to hibernate, so a little extra cover of leaves provides beneficial insulation.
A light cover of leaves is actually good for your turf; it provides a bit of insulation and will decompose in the spring to nourish the soil. A thick covering, however, may cause problems for lawn grasses. If you can’t just leave leaf litter where it falls, consider using a rake or leaf vacuum to gather the leaves whole and create a pile at the edge of the yard, rather than bagging them for the landfill or shredding them with the lawn mower. Leaves can also replace expensive wood chip mulch for trees and perennials.
Consider if your lawn and yard maintenance routine follows soil health principles, and if you can do better by adding diversity. Lawns are the single largest “crop” we grow, covering around 40 million acres according to a 2005 NASA estimate. But it doesn’t have to be a mono-crop. The University of MN has some good advice on diversifying your lawn with flowering plants that are low growing. Fall is a good time to seed. Try frost seeding some white clover or creeping thyme. Pollinators and soil microbes will appreciate it.
Seed heads and stems of perennial flowers and grasses can be beautiful coated in frost or snow cover. The seeds provide nutritious food for birds and small mammals. Many native bee species will hollow out the spongy interior of pithy stems to lay their eggs. Leave these valuable resources standing all winter and into spring until daytime temperatures have reached 50 degrees to give the insects time to develop and emerge. If you must remove them, gather them together and leave them on your property somewhere. There is a good chance the bees will still hatch, and the birds will still find the seeds.
Another valuable feature of a winter habitat garden is a brush pile. A brush pile provides a truly diverse habitat for an equally diverse society of wildlife. There is both food and shelter in a brush pile for birds, insects, arachnids, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. A pile of loosely stacked sticks of various sizes, the pithy stems from your perennials, and leaves from your lawn would make a small but wonderful habitat and food web all on its own. Ideal placement for this pile is either about ten feet from your bird feeders, or as a “bridge” between the feeders and a forested or brushy perimeter, if that perimeter is more than ten feet away. This spacing provides songbirds the route and hiding place they need to escape winter predators.
What do you find beautiful in your yard and garden? I value a winter landscape full of activity and the promise of abundance in the spring, not a clean, mowed lawn or a garden of exposed, brown soil. When I think about what I find beautiful in my yard, it’s the life.
Two great blogs to check out if you’re interested in more information about pollinators and habitat design: The Xerces Society and The Habitat Network.