By Henry Cauley of Pimmit Hills Pollinator Company
For years, conventional gardening tips for fall instructed us to clean up and remove fallen leaves, cut down dead or dying flowers, and let the ground go bare for the next few months. To make your garden have a greater impact over the winter that leads to a successful spring, try these approaches:
Do: Let Your Leaves Be a Natural Mulch
Do you spend a lot of time and money on purchasing and spreading mulch? Our trees provide this material and service for us, free of charge! Allow the leaves that fall in your garden to serve as a natural mulch. Fallen leaves protect plant roots over the winter by acting as an insulating layer that regulates moisture retention and soil temperature in garden beds and around the base of trees and shrubs and prevents frost heave. Leaves should be removed from turf unless they are broken down using a mulching mower. As soon as the weather begins to warm, this natural layer of organic material decomposes into your soil, reducing your need to rely on outside compost and fertilizer.
Do: Let Your Plant Seed Heads Be a Source of Food
The seed heads that form after the flowers fade are no less important than the nectar and pollen that vibrant plants provide during the warmer months. Many different species that overwinter in our area, especially birds, rely on these seed heads for key sources of food when insects are not available. Spend some time watching the seed heads of Echinacea puperea (Purple Coneflower), and you will quickly realize that the plants are beloved by the American Goldfinch. Chipmunks and squirrels gladly will feast on the seeds of decaying sunflowers and Cardinals will tug at the dormant spikes of Liatris for seed while you enjoy your morning coffee.
Do: Let your Garden Debris Be a Source of Shelter
Most of our native pollinators rely on the debris from our gardens for shelter. Some, including many of our native bees, use this debris as cover for the nests they build in the ground to help them overwinter. Others rely on the hollow stems of plants to make their homes or move loose plant debris to other locations to build nests and shelters. Fireflies live most of their lives as larvae in leaf litter, feeding on slugs and snails. When you remove these sources of shelter, you remove the pollinators and fireflies that will emerge in the spring and get right to work in your garden, pollinating your plants.
Do: Let Your Dormant Plants Do the Planting
Though the colors of summer will have long faded by winter, the various shades of greys, browns, and blacks that your dormant plants create their own striking visual interest. For these plants to spread to fill in the garden, their seeds must be exposed to the cold of winter in order to sprout in the spring. Rather than cutting down your seed heads on plants you want more of and having to buy and plant additional plants in the spring, leave up those dormant plants and let them do the work for you by self-seeding.
Do: Plant the Things You Want for Next Year
With cooler air and warmer soil during the fall, plants invest their energy in developing strong, healthy root systems. Homeowners who install or transplant their plants in the ground now, instead of in the spring, are setting themselves up to have bigger, stronger, and more resilient plants next year that require fewer waterings and are capable of handling more difficult growing conditions. Installing early spring plants now will allow you to enjoy them come springtime, instead of competing with your neighbors for what’s available at a local nursery.
Do: Plan for Next Year
While you’re active in your garden, it’s easy to think you’ll remember where everything is planted and what you want to change in the spring. When most of the plants have gone dormant and faded away, it can become a challenge to remember what’s planted where. Take the time to map out what you’ve planted in your garden. Write down your ideas, too, to help you plan for next spring. Planning now allows you to identify projects that can be accomplished during the winter and you’ll hit the ground running as soon as the warm weather returns.
Do: Remember, Winter is Temporary
Winter dormancy is all part of the natural process. Before you know it, the sights, sounds, colors, and smells of the garden will return with abundance. Enjoy the break and get excited for spring.