It is late October and our native plant gardens are still humming with activity. The late asters and some goldenrods still provide nectar and vibrant bloom color as the hues of autumn play out. In the rustle of withered stems and dried seedheads, the gardens will be busy through the winter supporting insects and other critters of all shapes and sizes. So before you choose a lovely autumn day to take the shears and trimmers and rakes into your gardens, consider making two fall and winter garden pledges to dramatically increase the wildlife value of your native garden: “Leave the Leaves” and “Be a Messy Gardener.”
Seedheads left on dried native flowers and grasses are a smorgasbord for resident and migratory birds. Gardens rich in shriveled fruits and abundant seedheads help birds survive in winter, and provide them a healthy start to reproduction success next spring.
The untrimmed garden will also provide habitat to support numerous species of native bees and beneficial insects who use garden spaces to overwinter. Depending on the species, they will take winter refuge under bark or dried leaves, or nest in cavities in hollowed-out stems and decomposing logs. Some will create burrows in the ground to reproduce and ride out the cold winter months. The mourning cloak butterfly will, amazingly, overwinter as an adult butterfly. They find thick piles of leaf litter, a chunk of tree bark, or other cavity to nestle into. Some caterpillars will wrap themselves up in the leaf of their host plant during the winter. These makeshift cocoons are hard to spot in the garden, but the caterpillar stays protected and in a state of deep sleep until the warm days of spring arrive. Other butterflies and moths will overwinter in their pupa cases, suspended under a dried leaf or tucked away under composting leaf litter on the ground. When you resist the urge to clean up your gardens, leaving stalks and stems and withered leaves, you help to encourage a rich population of native bees, butterflies and moths for the following spring and summer.
If birds, moths, bees and butterflies have not convinced you enough, hundreds of other critters can also overwinter in our gardens, including beneficial predatory insects who will be busy controlling other insects in the garden for you next spring. Leaving layers of leaf litter for these animals to burrow under in the winter allows them to get a jump-start on the services they provide next spring and summer.
“Leave the Leaves” provides nourishment at all levels of the food chain.
Delay your garden clean-up until spring, following several 50°F (10°C) days, which will allow overwintering pollinators and other critters to “wake-up” for spring and carry on.
When we allow our gardens to keep their seedheads, shriveled fruits, dried leaves, withered stalks and general “messiness,” we are acknowledging and supporting the importance of biological diversity. We can then observe and celebrate the abundance that resides in and emerges from the overwintered native garden in the spring. —Jan Getgood
PHOTOS: Jan Getgood