Clean Up for Pollinators

Many gardeners approach the fall cleanup with the zeal of a head nurse doing spring cleaning after a pandemic. “Leaves!!! Aaackkk!!! Must. Get. Rid. Of. Leaves!” Much waving of leaf blower and bewailing of nice mulch blown off with the leaves. “Dead flower stalks! Horrors!!! Must. Get. Rid. Of. Dead. Flower. Stalks!”

Only when the panting and wild-eyed gardener can gaze upon soil bared completely to winter’s ravages and see leaves lying only on the neighbor’s yard can they rest. Utterly spent, they finally go inside to hibernate until next spring, when a frenzy of digging and weeding and mulch replacement starts the process all over again.

Unfortunately, the super clean yard, while fabulous exercise, does a great deal of harm from our frenzied activity; some bees and other pollinators are being driven to extinction by our overzealous practices. This fall let’s get our exercise taking a walk and allowing some garden “chores” to remain undone until spring. If ever.

Those dead flower stalks can provide cozy bedrooms for tiny bees, who will emerge in spring’s warmth to pollinate early bloom (most bees are no bigger than a grain of rice but they’re fabulous pollinators). Trimming off just the tops of spent stalks leaves a hollow tube which is perfect for tiny bees. Some will overwinter in the stalks while others may lay their eggs there to hatch out when the weather warms. If stalks have fallen over already, try picking them up and placing them in an unused spot, perhaps under an evergreen with low branches. This loose pile of stalks is very similar to those “bee houses” you may have seen in good gardens.

If a stalk is holding a bumper crop of seeds, try leaving a few standing. Goldfinches love to sit sideways on stalks eating seeds, and many birds will enjoy feasting off those that fall to the ground.

Exhausted, deadened ghosts of beautiful foliage past, the once beautiful hostas, all yellowing sadly. It’s so tempting to remove them and spread mulch to hide the area they once covered. If we bravely ignore the lifeless leaves and resist the temptation to mulch where they once held sway, we’ll make a haven for little bees that just may pollinate next year’s green beans. We can help the little creatures by simply leaving a bit of unmulched ground here and there, particularly where foliage will hide their entrances/exits during the busy warm months. A few fallen leaves won’t hurt them, it’s the heavy mulch that must be avoided – it literally is a big factor in the loss of our valuable pollinators.

And leaves. Ah, the dreaded leaves (breathe calmly)! Leaves are the lifeblood of the forest, and not merely for the soil. Most butterflies and moths start their lives munching tree leaves as caterpillars. Our frenetic leaf removal, shredding, and other “chores” done in the cool fall weather kills thousands of these creatures, who not only won’t be there next spring, but won’t produce the offspring that are the best food for the birds we also love. The decline of our prettiest pollinators is a huge factor in the decline of our songbird populations.

The final Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) season’s brood frequently rolls itself into a leaf to make a comfortable place to winter over. Other flyers lay eggs on the drying leaves to emerge in the spring. The leaves fall to the ground, where a few more leaves will keep the eggs and little juveniles warm and dry until spring, when little caterpillars emerge to climb a tree, shrub, or other tall plant to eat some more and pupate to become the gorgeous flyers we love. Many will be caught and fed to baby birds, who can’t eat hard food like seeds.

This fall, let’s allow some leaves to just lie where they land. Healthy leaves are, in the end, excellent mulch in and of themselves, so allowing them to remain in mulched areas is only going to help your garden. If they all collect near a fence or hedge, you can gently remove the top layers and move the leaves to a needy leafless area in your yard. The exception to this plan is diseased leaves. Fungus and some bacteria can overwinter on old leaves (bacterial problems usually overwinter in soil or mulches). But the leaves it’s already on are the issue, not the leaves from the unaffected tree nearby.

Leaves on the lawn aren’t all bad, either. If you mow them, you’ll shred them in place, where, over the winter, they’ll break down, enriching the soil so that in the spring your lawn will take off without the need of excessive fertilizer (if any). After a few years of doing this, you’ll find your lawn remains greener longer in the dry summer months without watering – an incredible benefit to the plants and the stressed wells, aquifers, and reservoirs that provide all that water. Shredding will kill caterpillars but will allow some eggs on leaves to remain and hatch out in warmer weather.

Dead or old canes from raspberries, etc., are, like the spent flower stalks, marvelous homes for valuable pollinators during cold winter months. Resist the urge to prune them back to get a jump on spring’s chores and just enjoy the sight of birds sitting upon them.

Dead branches. Dead branches can be piled up in an unused corner. Dead branches provide winter cover even for some birds, and you may well spot a woodpecker busily “attacking” them to forage for dinner. If you see bark tossed away like litter, very likely that’s what’s happened. Leave the branches there permanently, you can add to the pile, and you’ll create habitat for many bees – perhaps even an endangered salamander.

Ornamental grasses that “flop” in winter are very much loved by birds to hide under during winter storms. It’s actually much warmer in the air under the “flop” than outside it. If you have a meadow, don’t mow it until late spring if you feel you must mow it.

Leaving the yard in a more natural state will help to attract birds to your yard in winter. A thoroughly sterilized yard is unattractive; they can see, and really enjoy seeing, the variable heights of the spent stems, etc. They know there’s likely to be something to eat in that yard.

The new and improved rules of fall cleanup:

  • Allow fallen leaves to remain where they fall, except diseased leaves
  • Trim off only the tops of spent flower stalks leaving the hollow stem intact
  • Shred the leaves on the lawn with later season mowing – better, leave them intact until spring
  • Allow a few “bare earth” patches to remain, particularly where large leaves will hide them in summer
  • Place fallen branches in a pile for wildlife
  • Allow “flopping” grasses, etc., to remain until late spring

PennState Extension. Fall Garden Care for Pollinators

Xerces Society. Put Down Those Pruners: Pollinators Need Your “Garden Garbage!”

Maureen Rice is a Master Naturalist living and writing in Talbot County.

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