Leave the leaves

I’ve had to learn to leave some messiness in the garden. Our fall garden clean-up ritual is actually harmful to pollinators.

Overwintering habitat

Did you know that most butterflies overwinter here instead of migrating like Monarchs? They spend the winter as a caterpillar, chrysalis or adult butterfly camouflaged in plain sight or hidden under leaves. When you rake leaves, cut back plants, and stuff it all into leaf bags, you’re throwing away next year’s butterflies. Queen bumblebees and beneficial insects also overwintering in the garden.

Avoid dead-heading or cutting plants to the ground to make them look tidy. Standing plant stems may already house cavity-nesting bee larvae or will become next year’s nest sites. I leave the cutting back until spring. Plant material that is left in the garden provides shelter for insects and future nest materials for birds.

Free mulch

Eventually, the leaves will break down and enrich the soil naturally. I consider this free mulch and fertilizer.

Fall and winter bird food

As a bonus, dried flower heads provide important fall and winter seeds for birds. It is delightful to watch Goldfinches and Chickadees hanging on plants, or Juncos hopping on the ground beneath them, eating seeds. For 20 years, I’ve had a bird-seed feeder, but I never knew that I could also grow seeds for birds in the garden.