The Intersection of Sustainability and Convenience

Fri., Oct. 29, 2021

By Caroline Paul, Horticulturist

Not to over simplify it, but I believe there really is only two types of people in this world. Those who love the quiet work of gardening in late fall and winter, and those who do not. Admittedly, before my introduction to dormant pruning in college, I was part of the ‘does not enjoy frostbitten fingers’ group. But there is good news for those who would rather enjoy the warmth and comfort of the indoors as the temperatures begin to fall. Just as we need to prepare for winter, we need not interfere with nature’s winter preparation process. A lot of what we do in fall, like cutting back perennials and raking your leaves, takes habitat and carbon sources away from our local environment. So try and resist the urge to get ahead of the game and leave your gardens a little messy this winter.

               About 1.5 inches of dense, mostly oak, leaf litter.

Leaf litter is the term used to describe the inch or so layer of leaves that accumulate atop the ground and it vital to our ecosystems. Many insects, especially moths and butterflies, overwinter in the leaf litter and to remove it in the fall is to remove their habitat. There is a lot of focus now on how to care for our moths and butterflies by planting the right plants and providing host plants for the larva but it’s all for not if we are taking away their winter homes. Other insects also commonly use the dead hollow stems and grasses to provide shelter through the cold months.

               If you must cut your perennials down, try to leave 8-12” of stems for bugs to burrow into.

Another reason to leave your leaf litter over winter (if not longer) is that it protects and feeds the soil. Physically, the dead leaves and debris slow down water and help mitigate erosion in your gardens while also working like a mulch to keep your soil from drying out. Chemically, all the dead debris is essentially carbon with varying low amounts of nitrogen. Soil microbes eat carbon and break down a lot of the leaf litter for you. When your soil microbes are properly fed, they maintain and promote a healthy living soil that helps plants live their best lives. Microbes convert nutrients like nitrogen and many others into forms that are digestible by plants. Leaf litter gives you healthy soils, healthy soils give you healthy plants. Pretty easy right?

               Dark, compost rich, friable soil from just beneath the leaves.

Here at the botanical gardens we do try to keep our more formal beds cleaned up for our brave winter guests who might fancy a stroll. And there are, of course, plants who need their bases free of debris to prevent rot or other disease, roses being an obvious example. However the lower gardens, which remain closed for the winter, are left fallow and cleaned in the spring. In fact, some of our more natural gardens and spaces off the paths never have the leaves removed creating natural compost and insulation. We even try to make use of the leaves that fall on our lawns by not bagging the leaves and cuttings starting around mid October. We just mulch it and leave it for our microbe friends to enjoy.

Next time you’re here at the garden or just walking around the park, pick up a handful of leaves from a well (leaf) littered spot and look at it. Is there a layer of more broken down leaves beneath those on top? Are there bugs and worms squirming about? Does it look alive? Good, that’s what a happy organic soil layer should look like!

Caroline Paul

Caroline Paul


Caroline Paul, horticulturist, has been practicing her craft at the Garden for three years. She comes to us with a biology degree from Ohio Wesleyan University and plenty experience as a floral designer. Her skills are on beautiful display throughout the Terrace, Restorative and Japanese Gardens. And Caroline’s special interest is in the intricate traditional pruning methods she applies to the Japanese Garden. That sounds like enough to keep her busy—but she’s never too busy to talk gardening with you!


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