Consider leaving part of your yard messy this winter! Yes, ignore any lingering tendencies that you have to pick up every leaf or plow under spent flowers during your fall cleaning frenzy. While we used to promote major cleanup efforts to reduce the impact of fungal diseases that can linger in overwintered debris, we now recognize some major benefits of leaving things alone. Here are some of the benefits:
Aesthetics – Winter landscapes are beautiful. Think of dried grasses swaying in the wind, snow resting on dried seed heads, berries on bare branches attracting red cardinals, frost on dried leaves and grasses…
Winter habitat for pollinators – native bees need winter homes to protect them from cold and predators. Various species spend the winter under peeling tree bark or in the hollow stems of wild flowers and grasses. Other species overwinter as eggs or larvae in ground burrows that remain hidden under fallen leaves. Leaving areas of your yard “au natural” provides the needed habitat for these critical pollinators.
Protecting butterflies – Some butterflies like monarchs migrate south in the fall, but many overwinter under tree bark or in leaf litter. Other species that emerge as caterpillars in fall either curl up in leaf debris or form chrysalises that hang off of dead plant stems. If you remove this habitat, you eliminate overwintering habitat for these butterflies and perhaps endangering these declining species.
Good predatory insects – There are a lot of insects that prey on other insect pests including ladybugs, assassin bugs, lacewings, and damsel bugs. These overwinter as adults, eggs, or pupae under piles of leaves or under plant stems and bark. Leaving your garden debris in place provides the habitat needed to help these pest-eating insects get a head start on controlling unwanted insects.
Birds – Some of our favorite winter bird friends like chickadees, wrens, nuthatches and bluebirds need protein-rich insects to supplement the seed in our feeders and in uncut seed heads. Leaving berries on native bushes and trees provides carb-rich winter treats for other birds. (No, honeysuckle berries do not count since they do not contain sufficient nutrients.) Attracting birds is a great reason to” leaf it be”