The annual ritual of fall garden cleanup can be a toilsome, yet rewarding task. After racking up piles and piles of leaves, it is really nice to see some green grass poking through as one last gasp of summer. Cutting back the old, dead stems from garden beds can create a more manicured look for the long and bare winter season. However, it may be worth considering a scale back on fall cleanup tasks to save some needed habitat for wildlife this winter.
Although raking up all the leaves sure makes our lawns and gardens look clean and well maintained, consider leaving some or all of the fallen leaves as winter habitat. These areas of leaves provide valuable habitat for many insects, arachnids (spiders), small mammals, amphibians and birds. If you have areas that need to be raked to facilitate foot traffic or that you just can’t stand to leave, consider piling the raked leaves in garden beds, along fences or yard borders. Or, start by leaving some small sections this year and expand next year if it suits you.
If applied to garden beds as mulch, leaves actually will provide some protection to the soil. They can serve as an insulator against winter cold to protect plants roots. Amphibians, such as toads and salamanders, use leaves for winter protection and many species of moths and butterflies will spend the winter in chrysalides on the ground which need some protection. In addition, leaf mulch can add valuable nutrients to soil over time if allowed to decompose.
Most of the nutrient cycling in deciduous forests is driven by leaves which retain nutrients in leaf tissues that are released up decomposition. Leaf litter provides a large carbon source to fuel soil microbial populations which are critical to decomposition processes and nutrient cycling. Deciduous forests are amazing recyclers with a carefully evolved system of leaf fall, subsequent decomposition by soil fauna and the return of nearly all nutrients to the soil. It is interesting to me that we tend to rake up and burn, or throw out one of the greatest gifts our urban forest provides, a highly abundant compost material that can recycle the nutrients used throughout the growing season.
If you have the space, consider setting up a leaf composting area. Not only will this provide you with valuable, high-quality garden compost in the end, but a plethora of wildlife will use the piled leaves for various habitat needs throughout the seasons.
Many of us are in the habitat of cutting back a lot of dead, above ground plant parts that could otherwise stand throughout winter. These plants can provide much needed habitat for birds if they are tall enough to stand up through the snow and native, pollinating bees use hollow stems such as these to overwinter.
Consider how nice, neat and pristine a freshly fallen snow looks over your yard and garden beds. Although it may look quite beautiful, it is relatively devoid of vertical habitat elements birds need for perching, or seeking shelter if everything is covered in a blanket of snow. It also precludes any foraging on the ground or bare spots for our feathered friends that find food that way. By leaving some of these dead plants standing for winter, combined with some leaf piles that may protrude, you can provide some heterogeneity in the otherwise devoid winter habitat of many yards.
Some of these dead plants may contain seed heads that actually provide food for birds in winter. What a great trade off! Less fall cleanup and free bird seed. Consider leaving flower heads from plants such as: black-eyed Susan, sedums, purple coneflowers, Joe pye weed, zinnias, marigolds and phlox. Also, consider planting more native species to start with. In general they provide great wildlife benefits than non-native, ornamental plants.
The more we rake, mow, cut and chop the vegetation in our yard, the more we homogenize the landscape. Biodiversity, or the diversity of species, in your yard can become quite low if some habitat features are not retained by letting things go from time to time. Ecosystems with higher biodiversity are considered healthier which benefits all species from plants and wildlife to the humans that enjoy them.