Butterfly Garden Winter Prep: Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground

Greetings from all one of us here at Wildly Mistaken! I’ve got a lot of content to catch up on, so apologies in advance for blowing up your feeds. Forthcoming topics include: the monarch life cycle, a trip to the Rockies, a (brief) trip to China, and more. I will be postponing the remaining “12 Months of Nature” to 2018.

Today, though, I will be talking some more about my butterfly garden. Even through the end of fall there’s a lot that can be done to move the whole thing along. When I look out the window I still see beauty there, albeit a quieter, more somber beauty.

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Weeding and Perennial Upkeep

Fall is, for one thing, a great time to redouble weed control efforts. The retreating foliage tends to expose a lot of unwanted plants I’ve missed through the spring and summer  months. A lot of the more agressive (and often invasive) weeds make a last effort to reestablish themselves. So step one in fall butterfly gardening is to go all scorched-earth (figuratively) on the honeysuckle, ground ivy, and garlic mustard that would like to own the yard. I mostly let the clovers, violets, and sorrel go, but remove them from anywhere they might make trouble for my other plants.

My next move is to cut back the perennials which require it and tidy up any remaining dead or dying annuals. Many of the perennials, however, require little-to-no attention. I leave the stalks of milkweeds and joe-pye weed for the bugs (and hence the birds). Alfalfa can be allowed to die back on its own and mixed in with next spring’s soil. Sunflower stalks can serve the same purpose as the milkweeds, and partridge pea has a tendency to take care of itself and can be largely left alone. I do cut back my asters, coneflowers, and bee balm. Last year my chives, pearly everlasting, and sage never went dormant through a mild winter, but I am not sure how common that is for this region. I tend to wait for spring to prune my butterfly bush, but fall pruning is also reportedly effective. Really this all mostly boils down to Googling each species and doing what more experienced gardeners tell me I should.

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The stalks left behind add something to the fall ambiance, I think.

Expanding the Footprint

I’ve been annually expanding the garden to fill the available space, and late fall is an excellent time for this part of the process. It’s least disruptive to the existing plants, and the ground is usually damp and soft – not to mention not yet frozen. As of a couple weekends ago, all sod inside my garden fence is a thing of the past! I plopped the removed sod, grass-side down, in various other spots around the yard where I’d prefer grass and weeds not grow. I scratched in some compost until I ran out of supply, then covered with a thick layer of leaves.

Clearing Leaves

Speaking of which… everyone’s favorite fall passtime is raking leaves, right? Or at least jumping in the piles like some kind of gleeful suburban stereotype? Well – preachy environmentalist alert – I’m here to tell you that the best thing you can do with dead leaves (for nature, anyway) is nothing! There have been plenty of pieces written about the environmental benefits of dead leaves and alternatives to the rake and burn approach. Frankly, I have found many of them to be ham-fisted, judgy attempts to guilt folks into what they “should” be doing. I get it. Decaying leaves return nutrients to the soil, provide breeding habitat for many insects and spiders, and offer winter shelter for amphibians as well as cover for small mammals. Burning leaves releases carbon into the atmosphere much more rapidly than natural processes. Yet, no one is here for those holier-than-thou lectures and I’m not here to provide one. I’d just like to lay out the alternatives as I understand them and describe how I manage the leaves in my own yard.

I will say this for the environmentally-friendliest approach: it is also the laziest! That’s right, doing exactly zero things to the leaves in your yard actually does the most things to support the natural environment. Who among us, though, doesn’t have at least the tiniest aesthetic preference for a leaf-free lawn? Our brains like neatness and order, and a bunch of scattered leaves is certainly not the surest way to satisfy that sense.

I don’t really know the relative environmental impacts of the other options I am about to discuss, except that they are all better than burning big piles of leaves but not as good as the do-nothing approach. I do think all are worth considering as happy mediums between the greatest offenses to either our conservationist or aesthetic sensibilities.

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A popular method of dealing with leaf litter these days is to mulch them into one’s lawn with a mower. It’s not quite as lazy as doing nothing, but since most of us will be mowing our lawns anyway it isn’t too far behind. This does return some of he nutrients from the leaves to the soil and doesn’t release a ton of carbon rapidly into the atmosphere. One drawback for the perfect lawn crowd is that it can be all but impossible to really grind up all the leaves small enough that they aren’t noticeable.

Montgomery County has a leaf collection program. I am not sure how common these are, but they can be a good alternative to burning one’s own leaves. Here, the county sends vacuum trucks around to collect the leaves. All residents must do is pile them close to the street. The collected leaves become compost which is sold back to residents through retailers. I don’t know how the fuel use of the trucks compares to the carbon emissions from leaf burning, or how much more efficient the resulting compost is at returning nutrients to the soil as compared to a mulching mower. Of course, once you pile your leaves at the curb they are prone to blowing back into the yard while waiting for collection, so this alone is probably not the solution for meticulous yard freaks.

Another option is to gather your leaves for use as natural mulch. Commercial mulch, after all, is designed specifically to replicate what is accomplished by fallen leaves in wooded areas. It keeps roots of desired plants insulated during the winter, helps retain water, and prevents massive explosions of spring weeds. This approach retains most of the benefits of letting leaves sit (and arguably concentrates those benefits into a desired space). It can be a lot more labor-intensive than the other options, and of course one can’t ensure that 100% of the leaves will stay in the exact places intended. After a couple of rains, though, they do become more stationary than one might think.

I’m sure there are other possibilities I’ve not considered, some probably novel and brilliant. Because I am me, I use a combination of all the approaches I have listed. Two or three times a season I collect many of the leaves into lawn bags. Then I use them as mulch, primarily in the butterfly garden. I mulch the leaves left behind into my lawn, but since many leaves collect near the road anyway I tighten up those piles for the county to collect. The result is a yard that is mostly pretty tidy in most places, with mostly healthy grass. The butterfly garden itself, in my estimation, satisfies the aesthetic side by replicating a woodland floor.

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That’s an awful lot of words to get to the point: there’s no one “right” thing we should all be doing to manage leaf litter, but it’s well worth the time to consider all these options before burning piles of dead leaves. Each approach comes with its own subset of considerations. Raking is harder work but “greener” than blowing. Various mowers use different amounts and types of fuel. Local laws or HOAs may ban or limit burning or otherwise specify standards of lawn-keeping.  Whatever method you choose, as always: happy gardening!

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