The Ecological Benefits of the Not So Perfect Yard 2017

recommendations for sustainable fall landscaping care…

by Joanne Mullowney

We love autumn.  Not only are we leaving the hot, sticky days of summer behind for the cooler, more breathable days of fall, but soon the brown gold from the neighborhood trees will blanket the ground with the last gift of the growing season.  This seasonal leaf drop can recharge your landscape and create habitat for wildlife if you let it.  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.   The benefits of leaf cycling, or hoarding your autumn leaf drop for use in your landscape, are many.

Leaves provide an insulating winter cover in  the garden for plants and those tiny creatures that sustain life in the garden.   Don’t buy expensive mulch.  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 and your leaf litter will have broken down while providing mulch and increasing the soil’s water retention abilities (moisture retention).

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. (Yes, using gas mowers is considered an unsustainable gardening practice, but consider the greater good.)

Rake up most of 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. 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 (soil building) 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, not a traditional concern of the average gardener.  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?  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. 
  • Leave snags on your property as nesting places.
    This one is hard in a small yard.  But you don’t have leave the whole tree.  You can leave a small part as part of the garden ornament and wildlife will take up residence.
  • Forget the chemicals.
    This one is not hard. Just do it! 
  • 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.  Take the Habitat Network pledge to Garden Messy and Pledge to be  a Lazy Gardener.  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 

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.

Becoming a Leaf Litter Bug: the Ecological Benefits of the Not So Perfect Yard

by Joanne Mullowney

Every autumn we post our Annual Autumn Cleanup article asking readers to rethink the prevailing custom of treating leaves as waste by raking them to the curb for Township pickup. We suggest instead that you channel your inner Environmental Steward by leaf cycling. The benefits of leaf cycling, the practice of hoarding your autumn leaf drop for use in your landscape, are many. They include the retention of raw materials for the compost pile, provision of an insulating winter cover in the garden, soil building, moisture retention, and reduction in the amount of resources our Township puts out for fall cleanup, saving taxpayer dollars. And 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 Benefit of Providing Habitat

The somewhat messy yard contributes yet another important benefit – habitat, not a traditional concern of the average gardener. 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? 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.[1] 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.

The Challenge

We have a tendency to want to put things in order at the end of the gardening season. Raking up and disposing of our leaves, chopping down dead flower stalks and grasses all contribute to a manicured appearance. 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 and heretofore underappreciated benefits to your garden?   First you have to realize that 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. One trick also is to settle the leaves under the branches of your shrubs. Give it a year and your leaf litter will have broken down while providing mulch and increasing the soil’s water retention abilities.

The Winter Garden

In addition, learn to appreciate your winter garden. I highly recommend The Garden in Winter by Suzy Bales to assist you in this task.[2] Light brown native grasses swaying in the wind look beautiful against the snow, as do the seed heads of Echinacea, Rudbeckia and Yarrows which all provide winter forage and are inviting to the birds.

So what to do with those leaves?

You might try a combination of methods. 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. (Yes, using gas mowers is considered an unsustainable gardening practice, but consider the greater good.) Rake up most of 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. 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 habitat.

Then, don’t rush your spring cleanup. Many insects living in your backyard habitat do not emerge all that early. This past year I left the leaves in a large part of the garden undisturbed and they were quickly hidden by emerging vegetation. Some I pulled out and chopped for mulch and put back in the beds. This yielded a combination of leaf litter and mulch. It was fascinating to watch the birds forage in the leaf litter around the shrubs and perennials.

Set yourself a goal of gardening more sustainably by 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.

[1] McManus, Melanie Radzicki, Before You Clean Up Plant Debris, Consider the Benefits of a Messy Yard. https://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Gardening/Archives/2000/Consider-Benefits-of-Plant-Debris.aspx , 10-01-2000.

[2] Bales, Suzy, The Garden in Winter: Plant for Beauty and Interest in the Quiet Season. New York: Rodale, 2007

raking autumn leaves

“Leaf Cycling” Is the Eco-Friendly Way to Maintain Your Yard

Leaf Your Leaves in Your Yard!

 Every fall there’s a certain amount of cringing going on during my trips around town when I see  bags or piles of leaves out at the curb – all of that wonderful organic material that could be used to recharge your yards just tossed away!  So this is a prime opportunity to discuss the best way to handle your leaf cleanup at the end of the gardening season. I can’t urge you strongly enough not to give your leaves away!  It is a huge waste of natural materials that could benefit your yard! There are a number of really simple environmentally friendly ways to handle your leaf drop that don’t starve your yard and also decrease your impact on municipal services to save $$$.

So what to do with those leaves?

The first method is the lazy man’s way (my favorite) and involves very little raking and effort on your part. Simply run your lawn mower over the leaves where they lie and chop them up into small pieces.  (Yes, I know that using gas mowers are considered an unsustainable gardening practice, but consider the greater good.)  The chopped leaves can stay on your lawn and decompose there. This is an excellent way to help build up the soil. This works best with a mulching mower which is meant to chop materials (you do grass cycle, don’t you?) into fairly small pieces. 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. You won’t have to rake a single leaf, and your lawn will thank you for it with improved performance next year.  Check out the video below to see how easy it is.

Another method not quite so effortless is taking those chopped up leaves and mulching your garden beds with them. This will protect your plants from the vagaries of the winter weather and also provide your beds with valuable nutrients when the leaves break down.

If you run out of time (or energy) you can forgo the chopping with the mower and leave the leaves in the beds where they fall and pile on more.  This will accomplish two necessary tasks.  (1) Removing your leaves from any hard surfaces on your property where they can become slick and messy. And (2) removing those leaves from your lawn where they can smother the turf grass.  This also will provide for a neater end of the year appearance.  Research does show that most garden plants in the colder hardiness zones appreciate a nice cover of leaves to protect them, however there are a few that do not so you need to be aware of your specific plant needs.  If you mulch with unchopped leaves, you are also faced with the issue of cleanup in the spring because most leaves will not have decomposed by that time.  If you trees have fine leaves you can probably leave them be in the spring and the appearance will not suffer unduly.  However, many of us are blessed with fine old trees like oaks, maples and sycamores, etc. that have large leaves and for a groomed appearance in your beds in spring you are going to have to remove them.  [I find myself hard at work every spring removing leaves, chopping, and then returning them back into the beds as mulch.  I never said that gardening doesn’t have its chores.]

You can also add your leaves to your compost pile. No matter how small your yard there is always room for a small one tucked away in some out of the way place. The leaves will decompose more quickly if you chop them with your lawn mower as recommended above. Then gather them up (it’s amazing how a large pile of leaves reduces in size) and add them to the pile. If your pile is composed only of chopped leaves, you can make leaf mold for use at a later time. If you have green debris from your garden you can mix the two in layers and let it sit over the winter. Turn the pile when the weather permits and you will eventually have the Black Gold of the garden world – compost.

I tend to use a combination of all these methods.  When it is not too late (or cold) I happily run my lawn mower over piles of leaves that have fallen on the lawn and that I have removed from the beds.  Since raking afterwards is not 100% perfect, some is left on the lawn after I have either blown or raked the chopped product into the beds or put in the compost pile.  However, as the season winds down and I find myself beset with end of the year chores, one of the final acts of the season is that last pass with the lawnmower where I leave the leaves in place.  The yard is then as neat as I can get it before I retreat from the garden and await the first snow.

So I encourage you to avail yourselves of the multifold benefits of leaf hoarding.  Your yard will thank you for it.

by Joanne Mullowney, dedicated leaf hoarder.

Composting and Winterizing Demo on Nov 3rd Canceled

The Composting and Winterizing Your Garden Demonstration that was to be held this coming Saturday, November 3rd from 10 – noon has been canceled because of the impact of Sandy.

The composting session will be rescheduled.