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Autumn Gardening for Nature Lovers; Leave the Leaves

October 28, 2021


The birds, the blooms, the butterflies…but also the bees, the mushrooms, the ravenous deer, the slime mold sprawled across your mulch… As gardeners, we take it all in—the good, the bad, and the frustrating. It is understood that nature is the whole package, and we can’t pick and choose the elements of a symphony when it all must function together.

We are part of that symphony, too. The choices we make have a direct impact on our garden and our environment. The balance to be struck is the aesthetic we seek and the practicality of what works for nature. We are both botanical artists and ecologists.

As we learn more about our environment and its needs, we can better contribute to our role as the ecologist. It starts in the garden, of course, and though the leaves are falling, the flowers are drooping, and our thoughts are drifting toward soup and a warm blanket, this is the best time to set the stage for the season.

Autumn is an opportunity to challenge some of our traditional garden clean-up tactics and welcome good practices for the wildlife. These three tips are easy for any nature lover to follow.

  1. Leave up your perennial stalks and seed heads
Leave up seed heads as bird food and insect shelter.

Not only are seeds amazing by function and design, they make great winter interest through texture and color. More importantly, these are natural bird feeders that don’t breed disease, cause unnecessary competition, or attract nuisance wildlife. Hollow stalks also serve as nurseries for beneficial insects and hibernacula for overwintering pollinators.

2.  Save pruning your shrubs for late winter or early spring

Deadheading roses now will encourage growth when the plant should be going dormant.

The exception, of course, is if you have a spring-flowering shrub, and then you can wait until after flowering. Pruning in the fall risks cutting developing flower buds. Deadheading roses or pruning now also stimulates plant growth, which will be at risk come the first hard frost. Damaged buds and branches can be pathways to fungi and disease. Also consider our feathered friends when they seek shelter this winter from predators or harsh weather; shrubs can provide much-needed refuge.

3.  Leave the leaves

Adding leaf litter at the base of your plant offers great protection.
Annuals free of disease can be removed and composted.

You need not bury your perennials and shrubs in a pile of wet leaves, but nature’s “mulch” can be gathered around the base of your plants to provide insulation and protection. Did I mention leaves are free? They also contain beneficial bacteria for decomposition, and many helpful invertebrates rely on leaves as shelter or a place to hibernate. The leaves you want to avoid would be any from the garden that are from diseased plants (like blackspot). Contaminated leaves should not be composted with the annuals you pull.

Now it might seem like following these tips is just being lazy, but when you stop to think about it, nature has a nature rhythm that does not necessarily need our intervention. Resist the urge to do a “super clean” in the garden this fall, and try being a part of the symphony that will let your garden sing this spring.

Stefanie Verish

Stefanie Verish

Horticulturist, CBG

Stefanie is a new employee to CBG, but she has been working with plants for over 20 years. Her career as a naturalist with Cleveland Metroparks, her horticultural experience in landscaping for the Village of Valley View, and her freelance artistry have nurtured her love for gardening and design. She is especially passionate about utilizing native plants as integral components for local gardens.

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