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Giving Back this Fall: 3 Ways to Maximize Your Yard’s Potential

Leave the leaves!

By Naturalist and Photographer, Sharon Mammoser.

With fall right around the corner it’s likely they’ll be lots of articles about how to get your garden and yard ready for the winter, written by well-meaning people who are just doing what they’ve always done. But what if we got on a different page this year and actually did things for the benefit of wildlife?

Many of us have jumped on board to add pollinator, moth, and butterfly gardens. We’re moving towards choosing native plants over invasive ones, and even adding host plants for caterpillars. We are beginning to recognize that biodiversity in our yards is a good thing and that each of us, regardless of the size of our properties, can make a difference. We’re starting to reject pesticides. We’ve begun to understand that a healthy ecosystem requires a strong foundation of insects like caterpillars. Basically many of us are rolling out the red carpet for bees, butterflies, moths and other critters, which is worth celebrating.

But guess what? Fall comes and many of us YANK away the carpet, thereby killing all of the things we spent the last two months attracting! What if I told you that how you maintain your yards and gardens in the fall is just as important as choosing the right plants?

Here are three ways to maximize your yard’s potential:

1. Leave the Leaves.

If I made a billboard advertising FREE ORGANIC FERTILIZER–UNLIMITED SUPPLY, then giving directions, many people would be knocking on my door wanting in. “Free?” they would say, “How can that be?”

Here’s a secret– those leaves that fall each autumn are a fabulous free and organic fertilizer. When leaves decompose they return all of those nutrients back to the soil. And guess what? You know all of those critters you’re planting all of those flowers, shrubs and trees for? If you haul away your leaves, or chop them into tiny pieces, you’re basically killing every single animal you only months ago invited into your yards!  

It may seem hard to believe that a tiny critter like a butterfly or moth could survive winter but they do— in all of their four stages— egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (cocoon or chrysalis) and even adults, hidden away in the fallen leaves. Want to have luna moths, fritillaries, or tiger swallowtails in your gardens next spring? How about fireflies? Did you know firefly larvae spend one to three years in fallen leaves before they become the flashing adults that decorate our yards with magic? Want to help salamanders, frogs and birds?

Firefly larvae require leaf litter.

You can continue to support these critters by leaving the leaves on the ground. If you can’t leave them where they fall, collect them and put them in a designated wild area in your yard, or spread them around your trees and flowers. Those leaves offer insulation against frigid temperatures and help protect tender roots. Worried about what your neighbors will think? Xerces makes a sign you can post, educating others about the value of leaves. Worried about those leaves crushing and killing your plants? You need only to look at the forest to see this is not the case, as each spring, countless wildflowers manage to push their way out of the frozen earth, through that heavy layer of fallen leaves, and bloom.

2. Leave the Stems.

Did you know many our of native bees overwinter in hollows stems? Each fall gardeners everywhere are told to get ready for winter by cutting down all of your perennials so as to make everything look neat. Mother Nature doesn’t “Do Neat.” Instead, the forest and meadows are filled with plants that are left standing throughout the winter. In the spring new growth comes up, unhindered by those dried plant stalks.

Dried flowers add visual interest to your yard.

3. Leave the Seeds.

If you leave the seeds on the stalks, you’ll have the pleasure of watching goldfinches, chickadees, and migrating warblers feed in your yard. When you choose to leave the stems and seeds where they stand, you are offering many birds and other animals a much-needed food supply.

We can change the way we prepare our yards for winter– prioritizing the animals we share our spaces with, rather than simply doing something because of long-held traditions that cater only to how things LOOK.  It’s easy, won’t cost anything, and with the time you’ll free up you can spend it doing something you actually enjoy. Happy Fall!

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