It’s that time of the year again…time to do fall clean up and get your garden ready for the winter. But when it comes to fall clean up in a wildlife-friendly garden, what you don’t do is as important as the fall chores you actually do perform.
One of my favorite parts about maintaining a habitat garden is that you can give yourself permission to slack off a bit and ease up on the fall clean up. In fact, you should give yourself a big pat on the back if your garden looks a bit unkempt when you call it quits for the season.
Well-Meaning, But Bad, Advice
It’s not hard to find a standard list of gardening chores to do before putting your garden to bed for the winter. The problem with some of the lists is that many of the chores, while well-intentioned, can actually be harmful to all sorts of local wildlife that rely on your garden for their very existence.
If you’re not careful, you can yank the welcome mat right out from under all the birds, insects and small mammals your garden has been home to throughout the rest of the year.
By taking a more hands-off approach to your fall garden clean up this year, you’ll be providing much-needed winter food and shelter for wildlife, building healthy soil, conserving resources and saving yourself lots of time and energy.
Leave Your Leaves
For many gardeners, not raking or blowing their fall leaves is tantamount to not following their mother’s advice about waiting an hour after eating to go swimming — they’re not exactly sure why it’s a bad idea but they’re convinced if they don’t do it, something awful could happen.
A few years ago, several future NPWG team members weighed in on the Great Leaf Debate. It’s an eye-opening look at the hidden value of this goldmine for gardeners. And, if you’re like me, you’ll be amazed to find out who lives in the leaves.
Autumn leaves can be used as mulch in garden beds and as an insulating layer to moderate soil temperatures and to protect semi-tender shrubs and perennials.
Shredding your leaves and leaving them on your grass is a simple way to add organic matter and feed your soil. Any extra leaves can be added to your compost pile.
Drop Those Pruners
While it’s important to remove any diseased or damaged vegetation so your garden stays healthy, leaving flower stalks and spent flowers standing is a good source of food and shelter for all sorts of wildlife.
If you routinely deadhead your coneflowers (Echinacea), you’ve probably missed one of the delights of your fall garden — seeing birds, like goldfinches, swooping in and out of your garden to grab a few seeds and then fly away.
Many beneficial insects overwinter in plant stalks. If you cut them down and throw them away, you may be throwing away next year’s butterflies.
If you must cut back flower stalks and ornamental grasses, use them as an insulating layer around your garden, just like you would use shredded leaves. In the spring, you can clear them away as new growth appears and your garden comes alive.
Leaving seed heads standing also adds another layer of interest to your winter garden. There’s nothing like seeing the sun glistening off of a frost-covered spent Joe-Pye weed flower or seeing little bluestem grass poking its head up out of a fresh layer of snow.
If You Build It, They Will Come
Fall clean up in a wildlife garden certainly favors busy, harried, procrastinating gardeners. Having a garden that is always neat and tidy is actually counterproductive when you’re creating a wildlife-friendly garden.
It may seem like you’re asking for trouble, but by building a simple brush pile, tucked away in a remote corner of your garden, you’ll be creating a refuge for small mammals, birds, and amphibians. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just a collection of twigs, with some leaves and maybe even some evergreen branches for good measure.
So when it comes to fall clean up in your wildlife garden, remember it’s OK to turn a blind eye to a little mess because Mother Nature is doing what she does best.
What other clean up chores are you not doing in your wildlife garden this fall?
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