Before you think about clearing up your fall garden, stop! While the leaf litter, dead seed heads, and brown plants may seem messy to some gardeners, they are an essential part of a healthy, natural garden.
The best way to support pollinators and wildlife in your fall garden is simple… do nothing!
Resisting the urge to tidy up the garden at the end of the season is often harder than it sounds. Maybe this is through social pressures, or engrained habits. Either way, putting away the rakes, leaf blowers, and mowers is one of the most valuable things you can do to support your plants, pollinators and beneficial wildlife over the winter.
Top 5 reasons to leave the leaves (and more)
1. Wildlife nursery
The layer of brown leaf litter may look dead, but it is actually teeming with life. Take butterflies and moths, for example. The majority of moths and butterflies overwinter using leaf litter for cover. Some disguise their cocoons and chrysalises to look like dried leaves, and others use the leaves as the first food when the caterpillars emerge in the spring.
Similarly, bumble bees use the leaf litter for protection over winter. The mated queen bumble bees burrow only an inch or two into the earth to hibernate. A thick layer of leaves above the earth is necessary to protect and insulate the queen bumble bee over winter.
And the list goes on. Spiders, worms, millipedes, mites etc, all rely on a thick layer of leaf litter for protection during the winter. In turn, these insects support the birds, amphibians and mammals that are all essential in a natural, healthy garden.
2. Provide food
The leaf litter provides a valuable source of food for overwintering bugs. Beyond the leaf litter, we encourage you to also leave standing dead plants and seed heads. These seed heads and plants provide food for birds and animals throughout the winter.
Plus, in early spring, you can simply prune the seed heads to expose the hollow stems. These are perfect nesting sites for insects such as solitary bees; carpenter bees, mason bees etc.
3. Free mulch
Leaf litter is nature’s free mulch. It provides valuable organic matter, promotes healthy soils, suppresses weeds, and helps retain moisture. Fallen leaves have all the same benefits of expensive wood mulch, plus they are free! And what better way to add a splash of color to your garden than with a pile of brightly-colored fall leaves?
This doesn’t just apply to your beds and borders. Research has shown that lawns also benefits from a thin layer of leaves. Unfortunately, turf grass cannot handle a think layer of leaves so you may need to clear some from your lawn. If so, opt for raking or carefully blowing the whole leaves and piling the collected leaf litter around trees, shrubs and garden beds.
Avoid shredding with a mower, if possible. Shredded leaves do not provide as good protection for your soil and plants, and overwintering eggs and wildlife may be killed.
4. Protect plants and soil
Some gardeners may be worried that fall leaves may damage plants, especially when the leaves are matted down by snow and rain. However, a thick layer of leaves provides an amazing insulating layer to protect plants and the soil from cold winters. For example, the layer of leaves acts as a protective blanket when frost heave may expose tender roots.
If you’re not convinced that the thick layer of leaves will not damage your plants then just take a look at mother nature. Fragile spring flowers bursting through the leaf litter in our woods and forests are testament to the benefits of leaf litter.
5. Less work!
Last, but probably not least, leaving our fall gardens means less work for us. So, put down your rake and pruning tools, and enjoy the change in season.
We encourage everyone to stop and think before tidying and clearing their fall gardens. Our plants, wildlife and soil will all benefit from a winter blanket of leaves and plant material.
If you still decide your need to clean up your garden, at least wait until spring. This will help protect the life in your garden over the harshest winter months.