Put Your Garden to Bed More Sustainably and With Less Stress This Fall
Fall garden and landscape maintenance can be daunting tasks for anyone. What if we were to tell you, the rules of the past could be bent for the better? Perhaps, pause on the rakes and bags, lay down the loppers and shears, and let us consider what lives in the debris we are cutting down. It’s possible we are discarding the very critters that helped make our landscape thrive this year. For example, canes and stems cut low to the ground deprive beneficial bees (essential for pollination) and friendly wasps (valuable pest control) of nesting material in the forthcoming growing season. Likewise, leaves in a landfill do little for Lepidopterans– countless butterfly and moth species overwinter in leaf litter left in place.
Gardens aren’t just gardens; they can be functioning ecosystem habitats through all seasons of the year. Unless an animal, bird, or insect migrated away from your area, they will be overwintering in your garden or landscape. Congratulations! You can now be a steward of all the life that has gone to sleep there. Leaving more plants in place has the added benefit of beautiful Fall color in a space that, in the past, may have been trimmed down and “cleaned up.”
Many gardeners and landscapers may find themselves at the mercy of HOA or other local landscape rules during the off-season; it is by no means wrong to prefer a tidier landscape. Luckily, there are some compromises that might be made in these situations.
Below we have compiled a list of common end-of-season considerations, “happy medium” compromises, and how we are implementing each at Applewood Seed Company’s trial gardens.
Consider: Leaving plants in their place
Leaving plants in place (especially native species) provides shelter over the Winter and vital nesting material in the Spring. If you find that your vegetables and fruits were lacking this year, consider leaving this nesting material in surrounding border strips or gardens and see if your native bee population improves the following year. While 70% of native bee species are ground-nesters, the other 30% are generally cavity nesters that use those hollow stems and brush piles as nest sites. Many beneficial insects insert their eggs into wildflower and grass stems to overwinter, including predatory wasps that spend their days pillaging pests—another reason to keep them on your property somehow!
If plants cannot be left where they are, consider building a wild corner or brush pile on your property where you stash plant matter from any forbs, grasses, or shrubs that may be host plants, but must be trimmed down. When cutting stems, try leaving them at varying heights (8-24”) to provide a variety of diameters for different bee species who use the stems for nesting, and leave last year’s stems in place at least until late Spring or early Summer to allow our insect friends time to emerge. Over the Winter, the brush piles provide valuable hibernation sites for a variety of species from butterflies to birds. In the Spring, bumblebees may use sheltered areas under brush piles for their colonies, and ground-nesting solitary bees will appreciate the undisturbed ground for their own burrows.
Actions at ASCO:
We are leaving some shorter forbs in place, and cutting the rest at varying heights before piling any cut-down plants and stems along our fence line to be used in bee-bundles in the spring. We are being especially careful to keep any canes that we have previously seen bees nesting in or species that we have documented as host plants.
Consider: Leaving the leaves
Much like the leaves and stems above, hundreds of species of butterflies, beetles, moths, and bees overwinter curled in leaves and snuggled under leaf piles. As a matter of fact, in cooler climates, the vast majority of butterflies and moths overwinter as eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises, or even adults in leaf litter. Luckily, #LeaveTheLeaves campaigns have been gaining ground in recent years, and participants can even get attractive yard signs to help spread the word while supporting important conservation work.
Tree leaves are excellent, highly nutritious mulch for gardens; in fact, they can contain 50-80 percent of whatever nutrients the tree collected from the soil and air over the previous season. Leaves can also be piled into cages around young trees and roses as winter insulation or tucked under bushes and inside fence lines if your lawn must be clear. Please don’t chop or shred them, however, as the leaves may contain precious beneficial critters waiting to emerge in the spring.
Actions at ASCO:
We don’t have too many trees to contend with, but we are leaving our leaves along fence lines, under bushes, and are foregoing bagging.
Aster, Sunflower, and Rudbeckia seed heads have all seen avian visitors at Applewood. On the right, you can see where finches have already feasted on the Rudbeckia seeds.
Consider: Avoiding deadheading
If life got away from you and you find yourself behind, it’s not the end of the world, and the birds will be thankful for the deadheading that didn’t happen. Seeds of many wildflower and grass species are valuable food for songbirds whose populations have plummeted in the past few decades. Odds are you’ll find that the Finches and Chickadees will take care of any seed left in seed heads, and ground feeders like Dark-Eyed Juncos and Towhees will clean up what falls below.
Sometimes deadheading is necessary to avoid unwelcome volunteer flowers in subsequent seasons. Perhaps bundle seed heads elsewhere on your property for wildlife to enjoy, ideally far from where any future volunteers or rodents that may be attracted might be an issue. This can be avoided by having the seed heads suspended in some way, for example in a hanging feeder.
Actions at ASCO:
Unfortunately, our perennial trial gardens would be overrun with volunteers in all the wrong places if we didn’t deadhead, so we’ve had to get creative. This year we are wrangling tall flower stems with various seed heads around poles normally used for annual vines, where landscape fabric will prevent unruly volunteers. This will also allow us to informally track how certain forbs are used by various bird species over the winter. So far this season, we have seen birds on our spent Sunflowers (as usual), but also on Bonesets, Goldenrods, Coneflowers, Globemallows, and Ironweeds with plenty of ground-feeding throughout the gardens as well.
Long-standing traditions and paradigms are difficult to break, but just a few small shifts can have big positive impacts. Every garden and landscape is different, and there are very few “one size fits all” approaches for maintenance. Hopefully, as we say “Goodnight, Garden” with some compromises we can simultaneously give a safe and restful goodnight to those hidden heroes sleeping within.
Sweet dreams, trial garden.
-Elizabeth Hedrick-Collins, M.S., Research & Lab Coordinator
For more information or a free commercial consultation on seed selection for Fall foliage and Winter interest forbs, contact us:
Main: (303) 431-7333 | Toll-free: (888) 778-7333
Address: 5380 Vivian Street, Arvada, CO 80002, USA
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