While our goal used to be leaf-free by Christmas, we’ve come to do much less fall cleanup. We now do one leaf gathering before Thanksgiving and let the remaining leaves (there are plenty of latecomers) rest on the beds until spring. This way we have minimal disruption and, as new growth emerges, we remove leftover leaves by hand.
Our native maples, redwoods, dogwoods, and the powerhouse of biodiversity – our pin oak – pack a powerful punch in the way of nutrition for birds and insects.
We recently learned from native plant guru and entomologist Doug Tallamy, author of the book and website Bringing Nature Home, that the white oak is home to about 532 species of caterpillars, all nutritious to birds. (All native oaks are beneficial to nature). Caterpillars are especially important, because 96 per cent of birds feed on caterpillars (and sawflies) while nesting.
Why care about birds? Besides their joyous presence and songs, Tallamy says biodiversity, or the lack of it, indicates the health of our own life-support systems. He says, “Over 800 plant and animal species are rare, threatened, or endangered in Pennsylvania, and 150 have already disappeared entirely.” He adds that songbirds have been in decline since the 1960s and have lost 40 percent of their numbers so far. Birds that breed in meadows are in more trouble, with some completely absent from areas that used to support healthy populations.
This is why we’re trying to plant more insect-rich, native plants and why a winter project is to study the National Wildlife Federation website Tallamy recommends: http://www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder
This fall we’re also trying hard not to be neatniks. To keep the disruption to insect larva down, we’re minimizing leaf blowing. Firefly larvae, for example, spend their entire larval life in the litter. Tallamy says there’s a direct correlation between the decline of fireflies and the increased use of leaf blowers.
Except for the lawn, the front paths, the hosta beds and areas where we’ve had trouble with fungus, our leaves will stay put. So will the stalks of perennials that produce seed heads for overwintering birds: cone flowers, Black-eyed Susans, and sedum ‘Autumn Joy.’
While we prepare our Thanksgiving dinner, we want to make sure we’ve left enough in the garden for birds, bees, and other insects.