Autumn is here and your fall garden clean-up project may be looming. If you think it is daunting to clean up all of those leaves and standing dead plant material then I have some great news for you! You don't have to clean up all of those leaves! In fact, the butterflies, bees, songbirds and plants would prefer it if you didn't.
Leave the Leaves
There are SEVERAL reasons to leave the leaves. They add nutrients to your soil, acting as a natural fertilizer as they decompose over the winter and resulting in healthier plants in the spring. Leaf litter is a vital food source for decomposers, like millipedes, snails, and worms. In turn, these beneficial decomposes are creating beautiful soil AND providing food for our songbirds. 15 percent of bee species nest in cavities, such as hollow plant stems or holes in wood so you are also supporting bees! Still not convinced? The layer of leaves act as a natural mulch and will provide an extra layer of insulation for your perennial plants
Replace Some of Your Lawn with Native Plants
Growing plants like coneflowers, milkweed, bee balm and other native pollinator-friendly plants in your yard is a great start! Remember, you can always start small. Pick a corner, border, or patch of your yard that you would like to designate as a native plant patch. These patches are vital for our pollinator's survival and more land is developed or converted to agriculture.
There are somewhere around 40 million acres of lawn in the lower 48, according to a 2005 NASA estimate derived from satellite imaging making it the largest irrigated crop in the United States!
Leave Perennials and Annuals
I know it can be very tempting to pull up the dead annuals and cut back your perennials (this includes milkweed). However, these plants are providing essential cover for over-wintering butterflies and bees. Standing dead plants will catch leaves as they blow over them which creates even more habitat for bugs!
Put a sign up in your yard that designates your yard as a native plant sanctuary for pollinators and other invertebrates! Signs like this one by the Missouri Prairie Foundation will help to educate and encourage others to do the same!
You can also share graphics and articles like this one that will help educate others on the importance of winter habitat!
Wait Until Late Season
It is best to leave the leaves indefinitely but you may decide that you want to clean them up at some point. If you an can hold off until late Spring, you have done the pollinators and other invertebrates a great service and gotten them through the most vital part of their lifecycle! The first warm weather of spring may bring you out into the garden but before you start cleaning up leaves, consider looking for chrysalides that may still be clinging to standing plants.