"It’s April! Time to get outside and get dirty!"
We recommend you taking our team member Patti D.'s advice!
After a seemingly endless 2020, the lengthening days and warmer temperatures are triggering the urge to get in the yard and clean up the gardens. Wait, what? We *shouldn’t* get down and dirty raking out leaves and chopping down stems from last year?
Turns out, less is more.
- Disturbing the soil in your garden might stir up buried seeds from plants you don’t necessarily want in your garden.
- Your native plants have also dropped seeds into your garden, thereby creating a tapestry of plants that will eventually knit together into the garden you’ve so thoughtfully been planning.
- Many beneficial insects use leaf litter to live through the winter in various life stages.
- Insects’ eggs and /or larvae attach to your fallen leaves and provide food for birds.
- Bees nest in hollowed out stems like milkweeds, ironweed, and Joe-pye weed. (Don’t get us started on why many of our gorgeous, native wildflowers have weed in their name! Or why leaves on the ground are called “litter”)
- Birds, like robins for example, use leaf parts for building nests, using the leaf stem, or petiole, to provide structure to the walls of their nests.
- Leaves form natural mulch that helps suppress weeds and at the same time fertilize the soil as they break down.
What if I don’t have trees or leaves on my property?
As Patti was preparing for winter in new garden beds she created last year, she realized that the leaves from her trees don’t actually stay in her yard. She's had some that blow up against the south side of the house (as seen in the photo on the right), where her spring ephemeral garden is. (Take a guess which garden gives her no problems each year? Yep, this one.)
This little garden on the shaded, south side of her house collects leaves, providing a great bed for early spring ephemeral species like trilliums, Dutchman’s breeches, wild ginger, and bloodroot. This little gem is her maintenance-free garden because it mimics what happens naturally in a forest setting, where these species are found.
She was trying to be a good garden steward and place a layer of organic matter, by way of straw (not hay, which contains seed heads), over a new pollinator garden she put in last year to protect the young plants. Do you see all that grass coming up? Lesson learned: use leaves - even if you have to go to your local community service garage or neighbors. There is no guarantee that your bale of straw is not hiding grass seeds within. As you can see from the photo on the left, she's got some weeding to do.
However, don’t let little setbacks discourage you, and hopefully you won’t make the same mistakes that she did. In just a few short years, with diligence about keeping the grass at bay, these gardens will fill in with the species she planned and planted and will be flush with all sorts of wonderful little lives spinning webs, munching tender leaves, flitting flower to flower, and crawling off to continue their life cycles.
Nature knows what to do. Follow that example. We leave you with this quote from renowned ecologist Dr. Doug Tallamy: “…it is best to put your leaves somewhere on your property once in the fall and then leave them there forever. The best place by far is under the tree that created them.”