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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Skip the fall clean-up

It used to be good gardening practice to clean up your flower beds in fall. We cut perennials to the ground with the theory that leaving their stems standing would provide shelter for insects. How gardeners’ perspectives have changed!

    Now much of what I do in my garden is aimed at providing that very shelter, as well as food, for native insects. That means I shouldn’t cut down my perennials in the fall. I’m unlearning the habit, although my pruner hand still tends to twitch when I see those “messy” stalks.

Ox eye sunflower seeds and stalks will provide winter food and shelter for insects

    There’s a conflict between some of my favorite garden authorities regarding this fall clean-up issue. At the popular blog Garden Rant, Elizabeth Licata writes that tree leaves shouldn’t lie in yards through the winter because they “smother plants and soil.” All I can say is that I haven’t found this to be a problem.

    Elizabeth doesn’t want to get involved in shredding leaves, which I can understand. It’s work, but for me it’s well worthwhile. I like converting leaves into shreds that make pretty, useful mulch. 

Shredded leaves make useful mulch

Because of what I’ve learned this year, though, I’m shredding less this fall and leaving more leaves whole.

    I just discovered that another trusted authority, Jessica Walliser, is contributing to a site and newsletter at Savvy Gardening. I’d already learned from Jessica’s book Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden that winter stalks, leaves, and berries provide needed shelter for over-wintering insects. Her post “Six reasons NOT to clean up the garden this fall” provides useful detail. 

    Did you know that some butterflies pass the winter here as adults, some in chrysalises, and some as caterpillars? 

Black swallowtail chrysalis. Photo by S. Detwiler

All of these forms could be depending on us to leave them some leaf litter or hollow stems for winter quarters. Jessica advocates letting whole leaves lie to avoid cutting up insects sheltering among them.

    Then there’s the matter of winter food for birds. I’ve spent a fortune on birdseed that’s mostly snapped up by nonnative English sparrows. Both Jessica and George Adams, author of Gardening for the Birds, point out that birds can find more varied food in our yards if we’ll garden with them in mind. I’ve been working on providing a bird menu of berries and seeds on native shrubs and perennials. 

Native winterberry provides food for birds

It’s interesting to hear that hibernating insects are also food for birds such as chickadees that forage for them through the winter. 

    There’s a seeming conflict between trying to help insects survive and offering them as food for birds. But in fact these are part of the same goal. The idea is to grow plants as food and shelter for a large and varied population of insects, so many that birds can eat their fill and still leave enough for other ecological roles, such as pollination and predation.

This green lacewing eats herbivorous insects

     Jessica’s book explains in fascinating detail how predator insects can help keep your garden’s population of leaf-eaters in balance. That’s yet another reason to leave the welcome mat out for insects in winter.

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