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

 

Take Action for Vanishing Wildlife: “Bring Nature Home” in Your Own Backyard

Sixty percent of the world’s wildlife populations have been lost in just over the last forty years.  Sixty percent!  That is the estimate from the latest Living Planet Report[1] published recently by the World Wildlife Fund.  Ewing’s Environmental Commissioners and Green Team members have noted their alarm about the loss of biodiversity and vanishing wildlife in numerous published materials and posts.  We have read reports that inform us that the “current massive degradation of habitat and extinction of many of the Earth’s biota is unprecedented and is taking place on a catastrophically short timescale.”[2]  We have also personally taken note of the loss of local wildlife.  Where are the boundless flocks of migrating birds that filled the autumn skies of our youth, the omnipresent lightning bugs that lit up our backyard summer evenings, the butterflies, the bees, the bats…?

Habitat loss is key.  Suburban neighborhoods have exchanged healthy native habitats for vast stretches of manicured lawns which contribute little of ecological value.  Industrial agriculture also plays a heavy role in unsustainable loss of habitat while also promoting synthetic chemicals and monocropping.  We depend upon wildlife for critical ecosystem services and again, we wonder if we are destroying our planet’ s ability to support our way of life.

If you too are alarmed about the extent of this crisis and wonder what you can do to ensure that your children and grandchildren will be able enjoy the natural world as we did, we invite you to follow the example of two of Ewing’s Environmental Commissioners, both wildlife champions, who work to promote and protect wildlife habitat and diversity on their own properties.  Ewing Environmental Commissioner, former chair, and avid birder Lee Farnham participates in Project FeederWatch, a citizen science program run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that counts birds and species at local feeders from November through April each year.  This project helps scientists quantify the health of bird populations around the nation.  And Environmental Commissioner and Green Team Chair Joanne Mullowney comes at the problem from her long-term gardening experience and now gardens for wildlife on her National Wildlife Federation certified property.  They are taking action for vanishing wildlife species and we encourage you to read on to learn how you can do the same.

National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife Program

The goal of the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife Program is to encourage all land owners to live more sustainably and harmoniously with nature on their own properties.  This means changing landscape management practices to support wildlife by (1) gardening organically and eliminating the application of synthetic chemicals to the landscape, (2) removing some of your lawn to provide food, cover and shelter for wildlife thru the establishment of native plant communities, and (3) providing the water sources, however small, that wildlife needs to survive.

Lest you think that gardening for wildlife does not fit the suburban landscape ethic, we strongly disagree.  A well-maintained habitat garden will not only be a refuge for our vanishing wildlife; but can be structured and beautiful.  Joanne participates in the Green Team’s Annual Garden Tour and is proud to invite people to visit her gardens during the Tour each year.

If you would like to learn more about how to provide habitat in your own yard and gardening for wildlife, we have enrolled Ewing in the National Wildlife Federation’s Community Gardening for Wildlife Program. See our new website, the Ewing Community Wildlife Habitat Project, and join us to protect wildlife in Ewing.   There are currently about 50 certified gardens in and about town.

Project FeederWatch

Project FeederWatch, a program for birders, is a citizen science program run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada and is a November-April survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards and common areas in North America.  Participants count the birds they see at their feeders and their species on a regular schedule and send their counts to Project FeederWatch.    Anyone interested in birds can participate.

This fall and winter season, Lee is once again going to pick up his binoculars to count the birds that visit his backyard feeders for project scientists.  His beautiful and wonderfully wooded backyard is ideal for his avian visitors and offers plenty of shelter, cover and food (and really should be NWF certified).

Lee’s observations will be added to those of thousands of others across North America to help understand the distribution and abundance of birds that visit American feeders.  This data also helps scientists to understand:

  • Changes in the winter ranges of feeder birds
  • The kinds of foods and environmental factors that attract birds
  • How disease is spread among birds that visit feeders

His data can help scientists show how climate change and decreased habitat are impacting winter bird communities.

In the coming months we will be posting the results of his weekly backyard observations.  If you feed the birds in your backyard, you too can take on the role of citizen scientist while enjoying avian backyard wildlife up close this coming FeederWatch season.  All you need to do is to install a feeder, count the birds that visit, and report your results to FeederWatch scientists.  For more information about how you can participate go to https://feederwatch.org/about/how-to-participate/.

You may not be a birder, but there are other ways people participate in citizen science activities to help scientists around the country monitor and manage wildlife populations.  From the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, to the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program, to the annual Horseshoe Crab Count during spawning season, and the spring and fall seasonal butterfly counts for the North American Butterfly Association, there are many opportunities to contribute and provide data on scales previously unattainable for most research teams.   We also believe that anyone can plant native plants in their yards and learn to garden more sustainably.

Join us.  You will reap a truer enjoyment of the natural world and a deeper connection to nature.   Do it because wildlife matters and is worth protecting.

[1] Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher.  Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). World Wildlife Federation, Gland, Switzerland. 2018.
[2] The Current Biodiversity Extinction Event: Scenarios for Mitigation and Recovery.  Michael J. Novacek and Elsa E. Cleland.  PNAS 2001 May, 98 (10) 5466-5470.

The Ecological Benefits of the Not So Perfect Yard

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

by Joanne Mullowney

The first frost has come and gone and today it is sunny, humidity-free and gorgeous.  We love autumn.  We are finally leaving the hot, sticky days of summer behind for the cooler, more breathable days of fall.  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 our gardens’ ecosystems.

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.
  • Let your ornamental grasses grow tall and seed.
  • Don’t cut down your ornamental grasses. 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!)
  • 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 yank 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

 

Spring Cleanup in the Habitat Garden

Notes from a newer wildlife gardener…

If you are gardening for wildlife you want to take it slow and safe during your spring garden cleanup.  You resisted the urge in the fall to be overly tidy and kindly left stalks with dried flower heads and native grasses standing over the winter.  (See The Ecological Benefits of the Not So Perfect Yard) This gift to the winter garden not only provided beautiful dried flower heads and grasses as contrast against the snow, but supplied food while sheltering many of this season’s spiders, moths and butterflies, caterpillars and more.  Now the days are starting to warm up and you are anxious to get out and take a peek at spring’s bounty beginning to poke up thru the debris.  So how soon is too soon to begin?

Gardening in the wildlife garden requires a change of mindset and a bit of patience while we wait for warmer weather to allow overwintering insects a chance to wake up from their winter nap and to move on.  Our winter weather here the last couple of years has been extremely changeable.  We have already experienced over 70° temperatures this season in February.  Be prepared for those weather fluctuations and their impact upon your habitat garden.   Wait for several 50° days to begin.

Of course, the best time to remove dried stalks and grasses is before it becomes difficult to remove them without damaging new growth.  But be on the lookout for overwintering chrysalises, partially grown caterpillars curled up in leaves, or microscopic eggs on plant materials.  I’ve started to remove dried flower stalks and grasses, but am leaving them lying about for a bit to give insects a chance to wake up and move on.

Raking leaves out of the beds is also a bit of a no-no as they still provide late winter/early spring protection and also will break down and build up your soil.  I leave the as many of the leaves in my beds as undisturbed as possible while still being sensitive to the overall appearance of the garden, particularly near hardscaping.  The leaves in the back of the beds will remain untouched but the top loose layer of those near the front will be collected and eventually chopped up (along with those dried flower stalks and grasses) and returned as mulch to the garden in another month or so.  This is not the purist approach, but one that I can live with balancing the needs to protect wildlife while gardening in a residential neighborhood.

After that the bones of the garden are laid bare.  Take your time with planting new plants and putting down mulch.   Let your perennials emerge lest you dig up something you’ll regret.  As the weather warms in April, it’s also a great time to tackle the weeds before they take over.  Ground Ivy, Lesser Celandine and Bishop’s Weed are thugs in my garden.  Try to get a jump on your garden thugs early.

Now’s the time to plan for a new garden, if you didn’t do it last fall.  I’ve about run out of lawn to remove and plant, but please do it if you can.  Lawn contributes little if anything of ecological value for the wildlife garden.

Spring is also a great time to take stock.  What needs to be divided?  What didn’t make it?  What could be moved where?  And, of course, what can I buy?  As I am newer to gardening for wildlife, my garden still has a lot of exotics that don’t pull their weight and contribute to the food web.  Little by little I am weeding out those non-contributors and adding native plants that do more for wildlife.  If I see holes in my leaves and other imperfections, I am learning to look at them as not imperfections in an unsustainable goal, but rather as a way of providing life sustaining support for the myriad creatures in Mother Nature’s food web.   As more than half of the world’s wildlife has vanished since 1970[1], creating habitat in residential neighborhoods by gardening for wildlife is critical to our planet’s ability to support our way of life.

As I do my planning for the coming season, I need to consider those remaining non-natives in my garden that are invasive and really do need to be removed.  For example, I love the color of Crimson Barberry and the contrast it provides; but this year those few remaining plants need to go.  Something with berries perhaps to feed the birds, or a great host plant for butterflies? Look for the EGT/EEC flyer A Dirty Dozen of Invasive Species in NJ (sold commercially)  for common invasive plants and recommendations for substitutes.

For additional assistance check our EGT/EEC flyer Sustainable Spring Landscaping Tips.   We also recommend the Garden for Wildlife program of the National Wildlife Federation as a wonderful resource.  Follow their tips and certify your garden as a wildlife habitat.

The best part about gardening for wildlife is that it is supports a somewhat laid back approach to gardening.  Sure, there are garden chores to be done; but they are not as intense and unsustainable as the scraping the ground clean each season, buying and applying mulch, fertilizing, applying pesticides, deadheading… approach.  Mother Nature will take care of a lot for us as gardeners and our native creatures if we just let her.  That works for me and, I hope, for the countless displaced wildlife that desperately need a home.

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