The Ecological Benefits of the Not So Perfect Yard

by Joanne Mullowney

The annual autumn cleanup is almost upon us and we would like to suggest that you channel your inner Environmental Steward by leaf cycling. Hoarding your autumn leaf drop provides numerous benefits for your landscape. It provides raw materials for the compost pile and an insulating winter cover in the garden. It helps with soil building and moisture retention. And, not inconsequentially, it helps save taxpayer dollars by reducing the amount of resources local governments put out for fall cleanup.  While you might think that this leaves the yard looking a little less than perfect, less labor may be required as we strive to become Leaf Litter Bugs.

The somewhat messy yard contributes yet another important benefit – habitat for the wild creatures that share our landscapes. Did you know that despite its not so perfect look, leaf litter provides an important foraging space for a wide variety of birds, small mammals and insects? The untrimmed winter garden invites insects to reside in native grasses or settle in hollow plant stems; while birds feed from dried seed heads.

So how do you balance a desire to have a not-so-messy yard (and not irritate the neighbors) with the needs of the interconnected web of creatures that provide biodiversity in your garden? Well, you don’t have to let your whole garden go wild; you can start out small. Just leave a section or two untrimmed or start in the backyard. Or settle some leaves under the branches of your shrubs.

You might try a combination of methods. Rake out some of the leaves from the beds that are simply too overwhelming onto the lawn. Then take your mulching mower and chop them up into small pieces. (Yes, using gas mowers is considered an unsustainable gardening practice, but consider the greater good.) Rake up the chopped leaves and place them back in the garden around shrubs and plants. Not surprisingly, they are greatly reduced in volume and contribute to a more manicured look. 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 habitat.

Set yourself a goal of gardening more sustainably while trying to reach a balance between aesthetics and respecting the natural processes occurring in the landscape. After all, Mother Nature doesn’t have anyone carting out leaves to the curb. Our world desperately needs more environmental stewards, eco-gardeners working in harmony with nature and conserving natural resources. We ask you to become a litter bug; a Leaf Litter Bug, that is.

Ten Green Tips to Save Some “Green” as You As You Wear the Green

With St. Patty’s Day fast approaching it won’t be too long until you until are able to get outside to your own little patch of green.  Here are a few tips to make your green even greener.

  1. Tear out some lawn

    Help reduce some of our vast suburban monoculture by removing some of your lawn and planting a garden. Manicured, tended lawns, though beautiful, provide very little habitat for wildlife. And, BTW, your lawns don’t have to be perfect! (see #4 below) An array of green plants in your lawn is perfectly fine.

  2. Create a rain garden

    Plant a rain garden near a downspout to intercept roof runoff.   It will help to slow the flood of storm water, reduce erosion, and absorb pollutants.  Check out the Rutgers Rain Garden Manual or call the Master Gardeners of Mercer County for more info.

  3. Plant a native plant garden

    The birds, bees and butterflies will also repay your hard work by appearing regularly and pollinating your landscape.  And then enjoy the fun of watching wildlife up close. Doug Tallamy’s books are great resources: see The Living Landscape and Bringing Nature Home at Mercer County Library.

  4. Eliminate chemical usage in your yard

    Please, please, please eschew the chemical insecticides and pesticides and herbicides on your property. Not only are these practices lethal to wildlife but it also ends up in your drinking water and our oceans.

  5. Compost!!!

    Start a compost bin in your yard. This is a great way to recycle vegetable and fruit scraps, along with the yard debris. Compost is nature’s gold and you can use it to feed your property the natural way and eliminate those nasty chemicals in the environment.

  6. Apply mulch, more mulch and yet more mulch…

    Your gardens will benefit from the application of mulch in your beds. Lay mulch 2 – 3” deep and allow breathing room around the base of the plants. Mulch will help keep your plantings moist, so you won’t have to water as frequently in dry spells. It will also decompose and add nutrients to your soil.

  7. Tip for Mulching trees

    Although it might seem from Tip 6 that there is no such thing as too much mulch, in actuality, improper mulching can be harmful and you see it all the time around area trees.  Do NOT pile up mulch around the base of your trees. Mulch softens the bark. Mice, insects, and fungus then feed on the living parts of the tree, killing tissue, cutting off water and nutrient supply as well as causing other serious problems that can greatly damage and kill a tree.

  8. Plant a vegetable garden this year!

    Nothing is greener than growing your own healthy, chemical free vegetables. Start some seeds now if you haven’t already and you will soon be ready to move them outside when the snow finally melts and the weather warms.

  9. Use water wisely

    There are a number of things that you can do to reduce your property’s water usage. These include mulching, planting natives, only irrigating when necessary, and harvesting rainwater with rain barrels. If you must irrigate, water your lawns and gardens in the morning to minimize evaporation.

  10. Join the Ewing Community Gardens

    Ewing residents, if you don’t have a large enough property or enough sun, don’t fret. Join the Ewing Community Gardens on Whitehead Rd. Extension. Each plot is approximately 20’ x 16’ and costs $5 for the season. Newcomers to the Gardens can purchase two beginning on March 16th at the Township Clerk’s office. The site boasts a number of amenities including deer fencing, a water supply, a port-a-john, and the companionship of like-minded gardening enthusiasts. For more information contact the Ewing Community Gardens Association at

Feel free to add to our suggestions!