Conservation Corner is a weekly article produced by the Forest County Land &Water Conservation Department. For more information contact Steve Kircher, County Conservationist-Land Information/GIS Director at 715-478-1387 or by e-mail at .
My wife asked me to take care of the leaves this weekend. Again, I had to remind her that you don’t have be in a hurry to clean up every autumn leaf. While it’s important to clean up plant debris, we can also spare a thought for the beneficial bugs and birds who need shelter over winter.
- Clean Up Perennial Flowers
Think about leaving most perennials uncut through the winter. Native bee species like
small carpenter, mason, and leaf-cutter bees nest in hollow stems. Many butterflies pupate and spend the winter on these plants as well.
- Many perennials such as coneflowers, sedums, black-eyed Susan, Joe-Pye weed, and marigolds can be an important food source for seed eating birds, like finches, during the winter. Allow their seed heads to ripen until they turn brown and split open.
- On the other hand, there are some plants that should be cut back to avoid issues. Of course, remove any diseased plants at once. This removes overwintering fungi and insects that can attack plants in the spring.
- Clear Away Old Crops
It’s important to clear away diseased plants and any dead or rotting plant material. Pest insects, like squash bugs, and diseases will overwinter, which serves as a haven for diseases, bridging the gap between this year’s crops and the next. Cover the ground with an organic mulch to protect it from winter weather or plant a cover crop. Pollinators need year-round habitat, not only flowers. Managing them in the fall is how you prevent weed problems in the spring!
- Use Leaves Wisely
We rake, mow, and leaf blow away every leaf and bit of nature. But fallen leaves provide invaluable habitats for overwintering pollinators.
Butterflies will overwinter in a chrysalis hanging from a dead plant, native bees will “hibernate” in the hollow stem of a bee balm plant, birds will flit around spent sunflowers, and caterpillars will roll into the seedpod of a milkweed plant. Frogs and other wildlife also need fall leaves for insulation the way we need a winter coat. If you can, leave a few out-of-the-way leaf piles, perhaps in the corner of your yard or under shrubs. Leave the leaves whole; do not shred. Leaves in your lawn can be mowed over and mulched into your turf. This will help return nutrients back into the soil and build organic matter.
- Compost Leaves (If You Aren’t Already)
Speaking of dead leaves, fall is the best time to start a compost pile. Why? You’re cutting down dead foliage, weeding, and shredding leaves, which all combine to make free, nutrient-rich fertilizer for the spring. For faster composting, layer your “brown” leaves with “green” materials in order to mix both high-carbon and high nitrogen materials. Keep the pile slightly moist and turn it occasionally to aerate and mix the material.
- Leave Grass Long
Just as we leave some perennials longer, you’re best leaving grass to grow a little longer over the winter. Soil-enriching caterpillars and other bugs bury right down into the thatch; a close-cropped lawn doesn’t do them any favors. For this reason, set your mower blades high for the final cut of the season. Also, if you mow your lawn, use a shredding mower, as it’s healthier to return that leaf litter to the soil.
- Plant Wildlife-Friendly Shrubs
Fall is a good time to plant new wildlife-friendly hedges. Include berry-producing species like hawthorn or shrubs like pussy willow that will support butterflies.
Plant Bulbs for Pollinators
Autumn is also the ideal time to plant spring flowering bulbs to provide early nectar for
pollinators like bees. Daffodils, crocuses, grape hyacinths and the stunning snake’s-head fritillary are a few good choices. Plant by late October into early November. Bulbs are best planted in groups or beds of the same color, but you can also scatter bulbs across your perennial beds for pops of color in early spring. If deer are a problem in your area, avoid tulips. Stick to daffodils and allium and crocus.