Fall garden clean up with pollinators and other wildlife in mind. Gold finch feeding on purple coneflower seeds

As the days get shorter and cooler, the gardening season starts to wind down, and many of us will begin cleaning up our landscapes for the winter. While cutting back dead plants and raking leaves can make for a clean-looking yard, it may not be the best thing for pollinators and other wildlife that inhabit our landscapes. So, how should we approach garden clean-up in the fall?

It has begun. The corn has turned. Transforming much of the Illinois landscape into a sea of tan. The soybeans are following with their yellow hues. Combines churn away, as the heavy scent of plant debris permeates the truck cab. Bright seas of goldenrod sway in the wind, as if a welcome mat laid down for autumn. Within the goldenrod mass, you may spot dots of purple asters. I was once told the colors of Western Illinois University were inspired by the fall colors of the prairie – goldenrod and purple aster.

More than monarchs - What are those bugs on my milkweed? milkweed bugs on seed pod of butterfly milkweed.

Milkweeds have become a popular garden plant the last several years. They are most commonly planted to help support monarch butterflies because milkweeds are the sole food source for monarch caterpillars.

Milkweeds contain toxic compounds (cardiac glycosides) to deter animals (insects and mammals) from feeding on them. However, monarchs have evolved to be able to feed on these plants. Additionally, they can take these chemicals and incorporate them into their bodies, making them unpalatable as well.

Spring brings spring beauties to the landscape - a clump of blooming spring beauty plants in turf

Have you ever noticed small white flowers dotting the landscape this time of year? Chances are they’re spring beauties (Claytonia virginica). While they may not be the first wildflowers to bloom, spring beauties are one of our earlier blooming wildflowers and a sure sign that spring has arrived. Individually, these wildflowers may not be the most impressive plants out there, but when growing in large masses, they are a sight to behold.

Gray hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus) feeding on a Coreopsis flower. Flower has bright yellow petals with a dark red center

Butterflies are among the most popular, if not the most popular, insects out there. In fact, many cultures around the world use a butterfly as a symbol of the human soul. Many people consider a butterfly landing on you to be good luck, for example, this Irish blessing:

orange and black monarch butterfly perched on milkweed plant

There is something about mowing that is so satisfying.

What is it? The smell of cut grass? Taming an unruly landscape?

To me, it is measurable progress. It seems so often that modern jobs give few tangible results. So much of our work is in the digital ether. After a full day's work, I leave the office switching off my computer, and all my toiling vanishes with the click of a mouse.