How to Prepare Your Garden for the Upcoming Growing Season
Spring is finally here so many of us can’t wait to get our hands dirty! As the weather warms and the days grow longer, here are some spring maintenance tips to ensure your garden remains as ecologically functional as possible.
Avoid a typical “spring cleanup” which usually consists of removing all standing vegetation, blowing away any leaves, and tilling the soil. These human activities can be extremely destructive to our local wildlife and ecology, particularly our many pollinators and other beneficial insects.
Don’t perform a spring cutback until at least mid April when temperatures have remained steadily above 50 degrees during the daytime. This is because there are many highly beneficial stem-nesting bees within the dried stalks of last year’s growth. Once this lasting rise in temperature has occurred our pollinator’s are finally stimulated to emerge and it is safe to cut down this old growth.
Do leave at least 12” of stalk remaining, with 18-24” being ideal. These stems will remain standing - but hidden by this year’s growth - and will continue to provide ideal bee nesting habitat until it naturally breaks down by the following year.
Don’t dispose of your old stalks. The main goal here again is to preserve as much insect-nesting habitat as possible within these hollow stems. You can do a few things here, including:
Chop & Drop Mulching: Slightly self explanatory, simply use your favorite tool (ideally human powered) to chop the stalks in pieces no larger than 6” and allow them to freely fall onto the soil below. Here these segments will act as a natural mulch while also providing habitat for beneficial insects and nesting material to other animals like songbirds.
Bundle & Hang: Bundle these stalks securely and hang from a tree, overhang, or other structure to provide a natural “bee-house.” Soft, pithy stalks and hollow stems work best for this such as Switchgrass, Joe Pye, Indian Grass, Raspberries, and Elderberries.
Brush Pile: Add this plant matter to your brush pile to provide habitat for wildlife.
Do leave the leaves. Just like in Autumn, these dried leaves from last year's trees are not done functioning within the ecosystem. Many Butterflies & Moths overwinter in various life stages within this leaf litter. Others hatch out and feed on these leaves as their first meal. Furthermore, many kinds of animals require this leaf litter within their environment as part of their natural habitat including Frogs & Toads, Salamanders & Newts, Snakes & Turtles, and other small mammals that may use leaves as nesting material like Songbirds. Most importantly, the prey species for many of the animals listed above are also found within this leaf litter.
Don’t shred the leaves. It’s best practice to keep as many whole as possible for reasons stated above. Shredding leaves should be a last resort in the event you are simply left with too many leaves that might be a hazard or lead to other issues. Shredding kills insects, robs emerging larvae of a food source, and shortens the time it takes for these leaves to break down which renders conditions less than favorable for many of backyard wildlife that would otherwise use the leaf litter.
Do leave some soil bare and free of mulch. Upwards of 70% of all bees are ground-nesters, including everyone’s favorite the Bumblebees. These bees are solitary nesters, but are gregarious and sometimes nest in large groups. They will NOT sting unless handled by a human as they have no colony to protect. Heavily mulching garden beds makes it difficult for these insects to excavate nests and changes the chemistry, structure, and moisture retention of the soil.
Don’t till your soil. When soil is turned the entire soil structure is changed from the “crust” that can form on top to the differing layers of subsoil beneath. It’s best to preserve this soil structure as much as possible as many forms of wildlife exist in this underground world. From the ground-nesting bees mentioned above to increasingly-rare amphibians like Spotted & Tiger Salamanders and even larger species like overwintering Box Turtle eggs.
Do weed out invasive species. This is a good time of year to spot and weed out young (or old) invasive species that need to be removed. Old-fashioned hand pulling works quite well, as well as targeted white vinegar applications, or weed torches.
Do plant out more plants! The weather is still cool and the soil is still moist. The earlier you plant the better, as your plants have that much more time for establishment before the stresses of the summer. Take notice if you are lacking any color for this time of year and fill the void with a cheerful spring bloomer like Virginia Bluebells or Wild Columbine.
While slightly different in practice than a traditional garden, a native garden still requires maintenance during key times of the year. Spring is one of these times and completing these tasks now will allow you to enjoy your gardens for the Summer to come.
Left-Right: Diagram of stem-nesting bee habitat UN, an example of stem-nesting and ground-nesting bees, respectively.