Halfway through the fall season, many of us are planning our landscape cleanup – clearing away sticks, stems and leaves, leaving a clean slate for the spring. If you are like a lot of Newark residents, you may be considering a more environmentally friendly clean up, one that recycles and conserves what’s left of summer and supports wildlife.
The first thing to embrace is to be a little less tidy. While we may be done with the spent plant material in our landscapes, the leaves, stems and seed heads have a lot to offer in terms of food and shelter to overwintering creatures.
Leave some leaves. Anyone who has ever walked in the woods knows that the forest floor is covered with layers of leaves from many years past and that the soil underneath is nutrient rich and loamy, ideal for plant growth. There are multiple benefits for your yard and for wildlife if you find space for leaves in your landscape. Trees, shrubs and even flower beds can benefit from the energy that leaves provide.
Adding this organic material to your beds acts as a mulch and improves water retention. The nutrients, broken down by microorganisms, improve soil fertility. Additionally, a bed of leaf mulch around your trees reduces lawn area, makes mowing around trees easier and importantly creates a zone that protects tree roots and bark from mower and weed-wacker damage.
Fallen leaves play a vital role in a healthy ecosystem, and not just for plants. The winter life of many familiar summer pollinators such as butterflies and bees are tied to the leaves and the soil beneath them.
Mourning cloak and anglewing butterflies overwinter as adults, often in leaf litter. Except for the queen, bumblebees die at the end of the year. The queen burrows into the soil to await warmer days, as do the caterpillars of some moth species. A layer of leaves insulates the ground, protecting them from temperature fluctuation. Several members of the large silk moth family make cocoons attached to leaves that often fall to the ground. From there they can, if undisturbed, emerge in spring. Keep this in mind if you typically shred or mulch leaves.
This improved habitat for insects creates an important hunting ground for wintering birds. Eastern towhee, white throated sparrows and the hermit thrush won’t be at your seed feeders but are busy on the ground, scratching in search of caterpillars, spiders and beetles, along with berries and seeds that have fallen. Once established as residents, birds will operate as a natural pest control, feeding their young hundreds of caterpillars in the spring.
Get reacquainted with your rake. Moving leaves with a rake rather than with a blower will leave more organic material in place. Blowing away every bit of plant material with a blower leaves soil bare and less fertile. Bare soil is more susceptible to erosion. Blowers pose threats to small creatures and contribute to air pollution and noise pollution. Raking is good exercise, but wear gloves to avoid blisters. If you have a large lawn, mowing over fallen leaves helps to break them down, provides a natural fertilizer and reduces the need for raking.
Leave stems standing. Many of our favorite summer perennials, such as cone flowers, black-eyed Susans and asters, are a good source of winter food for wildlife. Rather than cutting flower stems to the ground, let them stand. The seed heads are eaten by goldfinches and other birds.
The standing stems also provide cover for wildlife. The hollow stems of joe-pye weed or goldenrod are the winter homes of small solitary bees. Native grasses with long lasting fall color, little blue stem or pink muley grass, planted among perennials can mute the dark browns and grays of the flower stems through the winter and make the view more pleasing.
Knowing the ecological benefits of preserving what is left after summer’s vibrant colors are gone can reduce our impact on the natural environment and enhance our enjoyment of our landscapes year round.
The Conservation Advisory Commission was created in 1977 to advise the city of Newark in the development, management and protection of its natural resources, with appropriate consideration of Newark’s human and economic resources. It meets the second Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. in council chambers. The public is invited to attend and provide input. Commission members provide this monthly column to inform area residents on conservation issues.