Leave Your Leaves – the Ecological Benefits of the Not So Perfect Yard

Our annual plea for sustainable fall landscaping care has been recycled below.

by Joanne Mullowney

Today we are expecting some much needed rain, but overall have left the hot, sticky days of summer behind us for the cooler, more breathable days of fall.   Who doesn’t love autumn?  Soon the neighborhood trees will blanket the ground with their last gift of the growing season.  This seasonal leaf drop can recharge your landscape and create habitat for wildlife.  So, don’t treat your leaf litter as trash, but rather as the gift that it truly is to the millions of tiny creatures that are a part of the life of our gardens.

The Benefits of Leaf Litter

Raking up and disposing of our leaves, chopping down dead flower stalks and grasses all contribute to a manicured appearance which we have been conditioned to think of as the norm.  However, in nature, trees don’t drop their bounty at the curb for pick up, but rather they blanket the earth while providing a host of ecological benefits.

Leaves provide an insulating winter cover in the garden for plants and those tiny creatures that sustain life in the garden.   We encourage you to mulch with fallen leaves.  Wherever possible, leave them to decompose where they fall in your garden beds.  Or settle the leaves under the branches of your shrubs. Give it a year or so and your leaf litter will have broken down while providing mulch and increasing the soil’s water retention abilities.

You can also rake out some of the leaves from the beds that are simply too much and might smother tender plants and cause them to rot over the winter. Add them to the compost pile or the leaf pile on the lawn while the rest remain in the beds. Then take your mulching mower and chop them up into small pieces.  Rake up most of the chopped leaves and place them back in the garden around shrubs and plants.   Now that they are greatly reduced in volume they contribute to the more manicured look that suburban mores demand.  The remainder can stay on your lawn and decompose there. Do this as needed until the end of the season and the leaves will break down over the winter providing your soil with valuable nutrients all the while enhancing wildlife habitat.  One incidental benefit is that of reduction of Township resources allotted to fall cleanup, saving taxpayer dollars.

While you might think that this leaves the yard looking a little less than perfect, you are nourishing the landscape and providing valuable resources and habitat for wildlife.

The Benefit of Providing Habitat

This somewhat messy yard contributes yet another important benefit – habitat.  While not a traditional concern of the average gardener, we believe it should be.  Did you know that despite its not so perfect look, leaf litter provides an important foraging space and shelter for a wide variety of birds, small mammals and insects?  Also providing benefit is the untrimmed garden where ladybugs and lacewings reside in native grasses and pollinating bees settle in hollow plant stems.  Butterflies and moths winter in chrysalides on the ground and baby spiders hide out amid the decaying plant stems. Birds feed from dried seed heads in winter.

Some wildlife use the leaf litter and other dead vegetation to insulate them from winter’s chill, while others, such as earthworms feed on the litter, breaking it into smaller pieces. Bacteria and fungi in turn convert theses smaller pieces into nutrients which then sustain neighboring plants. They in turn help support biodiversity by becoming food themselves. Toads, beetles, ladybugs and much more also live in your backyard’s leaf litter. Each is an integral part of the food web.

Support Wildlife Thru Your Not So Perfect Yard

We recommend the following practices from the Habitat Network to help you in your quest to provide habitat and reduce your ecological impact.  Adopting good practices in the fall also leaves you well set for spring in the garden.

  • Leave your leaves on the property (Leaves are too valuable a resource to dispose of!)
  • Leave them in the garden beds when you can, mow them or compost them.
  • Allow dried flower heads of some of your garden favorites to stay standing in your garden.
  • The dark stems and flower heads of some of our native flowers look gorgeous against the snow and nothing is more exciting than seeing our small winged friends feasting upon the seed heads.
  • Don’t cut down your ornamental grasses. Let them grow tall and seed.  They provide shelter for the insects that pollinate our gardens and feed fledgling birds and other wildlife. Not to mention that they also look fabulous swaying in the wind.  They make a fabulous addition to the fall (and winter) landscape.
  • Build a brush pile with fallen branches instead of removing them.  If you build it, they will come. This author no sooner established a small brush pile in a back corner in the yard and it was inhabited.
  • Forget the chemicals. (This one is not hard. Just do it!)  They flow from our properties during rain events and end up in our water supply.
  • Finally, don’t be in a rush to begin your garden cleanup in the spring. Wait until after several 50℉ days to begin, when spring has really arrived, allowing overwintering pollinators to move on first.  You gave them a home all winter; don’t take it away from them too soon.

Vanishing Habitat

As habitat for wildlife is decreasing, so too is wildlife, and at an alarming rate.  A recent National Wildlife Federation newsletter states:  More than half the world’s wildlife has vanished since 1970.1  This includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish.  Quite simply, we’re destroying our planet’s ability to support our way of life.

Wildlife needs habitat to survive and we need to do a better job balancing the need to provide habitat for animals’ survival against commercial forces.  Habitat requires food, water and shelter and even a small yard can support birds, butterflies, beneficial insects, and small animals thru proper landscaping and landscaping habits.  They need more than lawn and it is important to provide trees, shrubs, and other plants (particularly native varieties and a topic for another post) that shelter and feed wildlife.

We ask you to adopt a somewhat messy yard and eschew the leaf disposal.  Keep your leaves so that they can decompose naturally in your own yard and support the butterflies and other small insects that live in the leaf litter.  To learn more about how we are promoting gardening for wildlife, take a look at our initiative – the Ewing Community Wildlife Habitat Project.   During this season of renewal so essential to preserving the next generation of wildlife, we invite you to join with us and pledge to garden messy.  Then put your feet up and enjoy the season.

Printable brochure of sustainable fall landscaping tips.

  1. Source:  Living Planet Report 2016 by World Wildlife Fund http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/lpr_living_planet_report_2016.pdf

 

BEE a Part of the Million Pollinator Gardens Challenge!

Photo by Mary CorriganDid you know that June is National Pollinator Month? In celebration of the many contributions that are made by our pollinators, the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge was initiated by the National Wildlife Federation to recognize and encourage the planting of pollinator gardens. Wild About Ewing, a joint program of Ewing’s Green Team and Environmental Commission, asks all Ewing gardeners to “Bee” Part of the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge and answer this call to action. Help preserve the health of bees, butterflies, birds, bats and other pollinators and create wildlife friendly gardens and landscapes.

To answer the challenge and BEEcome a part of the solution, just follow these three simple steps.

Plant something for pollinators

  • Plant NATIVE plants that provide nectar and pollen sources
  • Provide a water source
  • Situate gardens in sunny areas with wind breaks
  • Create large “pollinator targets” of native or non-invasive plants
  • Establish continuous bloom throughout the growing season
  • Eliminate or minimize the impact of pesticides.

If you have followed these simple principles in your garden then, take the next step and

Register Your Garden at MillionPollinatorGardens.org

Register your Garden to BEE Counted. BEE sure to add a photo of your garden or landscape to the S.H.A.R.E map. Anyone and any size garden can join in the campaign to reach one million sites for pollinators!

Don’t forget the next step because we need to encourage every property owner to help sustain pollinators and all wildlife on their properties.

Spread the Word and get others to join in!

Keep the Challenge Growing! Invite others to your garden and talk to everyone about the importance of pollinators and how you can help.

Certify Your Garden

To learn more and join with us, we encourage Ewing gardeners to follow the steps listed above to create a wildlife friendly garden and then certify your garden or yard in the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program. Learn more about Ewing’s Community Wildlife Habitat project at ewingwildlifegardens.com and BEEcome a part of the solution!

Wild About Ewing to Host Part II of Our Gardening for Wildlife Series – Gardens with Buzz

Wild About Ewing! is extremely excited to announce that they will sponsor Part II of an introductory series to the National Wildlife Federation’s Community Wildlife Habitat Project and how gardeners in Ewing are providing much needed wildlife habitat while getting credit for both themselves and their community at the Ewing Branch Library, 61 Scotch Road, Ewing on Monday, March 25th at 7 pm.   Mary Anne Borge, a local naturalist, writer, photographer and educator, will tell you what you can you do to attract birds to your garden and which plants are best to entice bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects to make their homes with you.  She will also share maintenance techniques that are the most hospitable for these garden visitors and residents.

Mary Anne Borge is a naturalist, writer, photographer, and educator. She is the Associate Editor for Butterfly Gardener magazine, a publication of the North American Butterfly Association; an instructor and naturalist at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope, Pennsylvania; a Pennsylvania Master Naturalist, and the team leader for Lambertville Goes Wild. Her photographs have been featured in numerous publications.  She shares her love of nature through her writing and photography at the-natural-web.org.

Part 1 of the series, entitled Gardening for Wildlife in the Suburban Landscape, was presented to the community on February 25th and we were thrilled to see so many interested Ewing gardeners.  We hope that this will be start of a great gardening season for wildlife this spring and for the future!

To learn more about gardening for wildlife and the Ewing Community Wildlife Habitat Project (or Wild About Ewing!) please go to ewingwildlifegardens.com

Date:  Monday, March 25th
Time: 7pm
Location: Ewing Branch Library, 61 Scotch Road
Cost: Free and open to the public