As the weather warms in late winter you can already hear the sounds of the season. No, we aren't talking about songbirds in the trees, we are talking about the dreaded return of the leaf blowers! As the days grow longer and warmer many homeowners find themselves wanting to tidy up their yards and gardens - and many landscapers are quick provide that service, even if it is still technically winter. Unfortunately, many of these practices are extremely detrimental to our wildlife. While gardening with native plants, proper maintenance can literally make the difference in survival for the backyard wildlife we are trying to support.
First, I'd like to clarify that "leave the leaves" should not be taken literally. All walkways, driveways, patios, decks, should be regularly cleaned of leaves, twigs, and other natural debris. The meaning of this saying is to portray the importance of allowing the leaves to remain in their natural state (whole and on the ground), in order to provide all of the ecosystem benefits that nature intended. This includes, but is not limited to, preserving the soil structure, insulating your plants' roots, preventing erosion & runoff, feeding the vast networks of soil fungus (in turn replenishing nutrients to the soil), creating overwintering and hosting habitat for invertebrates and other woodland wildlife (think box turtles, frogs, salamanders), and providing nesting material for larger species of wildlife like squirrels and opossums. If you find yourself with "too many leaves" for your property, ask yourself "am I growing the proper plants beneath these trees?" Woodland species have evolved with leaf litter for eons, and in fact many require this leaf litter, or duff, for successful germination each year. If you're worried that plants may not emerge through layers of leaves, you are more than likely growing the incorrect plants beneath your trees. One option I do recommend in the meantime, is to do your best to preserve what leaves you can, and then shred or mulch the excess - never dispose of leaves! These shredded leaves can be added to a compost system, a lasagna garden, a hugelkultur planting, or mowed into your lawn, which in turn allows the nutrient's to be recycled back into the soil. If the wind has blown leaves onto your hardscapes, simply rake, leaf broom, or sweep these leaves back into your beds.
As I'm sure many of you already know, it's advisable to leave all perennials standing through the winter. This allows for the proper overwintering of our many beneficial insects who require these plants as habitat to survive. This also allows songbirds to feed on the many seeds being held within the seed heads as well as any insects that are within the plant matter. Resist the urge to cut any of these plants back until at least Mid-Late April. As a general rule of thumb, you should wait until temperatures have remained above 50°F for at least two weeks before cutting these stalks back.
When you do perform your annual spring cut-back, the stems should be left standing to a height of 12-24”, preferably 18-24”. This allows the hollow stems to continue to provide habitat for our beneficial insects, specifically our many native stem-nesting bees. I always recommend the “chop & drop” method any time we are cutting back herbs/grasses. Use hedge shears and simply cut the dried stalks into small segments a few inches long, starting from the top and working your way down. This preserves much of the structure of the stems which ensures habitat for insects and allows the plant matter to become mulch as nature intended. These dried segments of stalks are also the building material used by many species of songbirds and you will be able to actively observe these birds collecting nesting material from your garden.
Sometimes it can be recommended for prairie plantings to be mowed with a mower at least once a year - preferably in late winter, but I prefer to keep machines out of my plantings. Instead, I perform cutbacks on an as-needed basis, but if you're lucky enough to have a large grassland or prairie-type planting that makes a manual cut-back unfeasible, you may opt to set that mower to it's highest blade setting and mow your prairie in late winter or early spring (after checking for wildlife of course).
Other than these few activities, there is not much to be done to prep your native garden for spring. Your plants will return year after year, as will the wildlife, as long as you perform garden maintenance with them in mind. Click the button below to download our handy maintenance guide, complete with listings of manually-powered tools to help make your yard and garden maintenance a breeze, while preventing disturbance to wildlife.