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Leave the Leaves: How Scrapping Fall Garden Clean - Up Saves Pollinators

Time was, fall garden clean-up operated under a kind of “scorched earth” mentality. Everything standing was leveled to the ground in an abundance of neatness. Leaves were raked and bagged and carted away. Gardens that had been exuberant havens of lush foliage and bright blossoms were put to bed for the winter as securely as any toddler after a long day at the playground.

Now, however, there are equally compelling reasons not to manicure the garden in fall. Gardens and yards can, and should, become backyard refuges for birds and bugs, rodents and reptiles, and mammals of all types–including humans.

Leaving the stalks of summer’s dying blooms can provide overwintering habitat for numerous species. Native bees, for example, benefit from winter protection from cold and predators by taking shelter in the hollow stem of a bee balm plant, for instance. Likewise, some butterflies, such as swallowtails and cabbage whites, like to overwinter in leaf litter. Others, such as the meadow fritillary, spend the season as caterpillars tucked inside the seed pods of host plants.

So, what should a gardener do to prepare the landscape for winter? To protect pollinators and other beneficial garden guests, resist the temptation to cut back dormant perennials, especially those plants that produce seed heads, as they provide important food sources for birds and resting places for insects. Leave the leaves in flower beds to provide habitat for critters like lightning bugs and aphid-eating ladybug beetles. Rocks, logs and brush piles also can be home to pollinators you’ll want to see come spring.

But as compelling as these practices are for the environment, they’re also good for the soul. The sight of hoar frost clinging to feathery grass panicles or the twinkle of diamond-like dew drops sparkling on fallen leaves can brighten an otherwise gloomy winter day.

updated Oct 01, 2019