Remember last fall? It got cold so quickly and you didn’t have time to tidy up your garden before winter set in. Ah well, there’s always next spring – right?
Now, at this time of year, we finally have the urge to tidy up our garden. But is a spring clean-up really a good idea? The bigger question is ‘should you clean up your garden at all’?
Each fall, myriad insects and invertebrates prepare for winter in various ways. A few leave the country, some go deep underground, but most hide out in the upper layers of the terrestrial environment. Flower stalks provide refuge inside their stems for tiny adult and/or immature insects, and those piles of leaves are a safe haven for many animals.
In April, when the soil finally warms, millions of tiny critters emerge rapidly. It was as if they were waiting for spring. Actually they were waiting for spring which is why they recover from winter’s cold so rapidly and emerge so quickly in the spring.
In our area, many butterflies, such as Mourning Cloak, overwinter as adults. They seek refuge under tree bark or in leaf litter. Other butterflies, such as the Swallowtails, overwinter in chrysalids, hidden under boards, suspended from woody stems or in the leaf litter, so they can complete their metamorphosis early the next spring. Finally, some butterflies overwinter in the caterpillar stage (e.g. Viceroy), again hiding in old leaf debris.
Ladybugs overwinter as adults, hidden under rocks, tree bark or leaf litter. Almost all the native bee pollinators hunker down inside the hollow stem of certain plants, in rock crevices, underground or in leaf litter. And if we have prey, we need predators, so they too overwinter waiting for the spring bonanza as soon as the frost retreats. So, where do they hide? In leaf litter, underground, in crevices and under tree bark. Notice how many of these use leaf litter for refuge?
Okay, so you get the idea now? But here’s where it gets trickier … Pruning your bushes in the fall can actually affect their flowering ability for next spring. Any good gardener will tell you how critical it is to know when to prune. Looking at those unsightly berries on your bush might lead you to want to prune them out, but what of the frugivores, the fruit eating wildlife? They love these berries in the spring when times are tough and new food isn’t ready yet.
For the last several days in Scugog, hundreds of Bohemian and Cedar Waxwings have been feeding daily in two Red Cedar trees in my front yard, feasting on last year’s berries! Throughout the winter, Chickadees and Nuthatches scour the trees, bushes, and goldenrod stalks in my yard, looking for tiny insect prey, which had overwintered. Other critters, such as mice and voles, and even some frogs and toads will overwinter in the shallow soils, or under debris in your yard. Albeit the mammals stay active, while the frogs and toads are assuredly frozen solid. The latter have their own mechanism for survival in this cryogenic state, and so the cycle continues.
But back to the question. Should you ever clean up your garden? It’s tempting to say ‘no’ but realistically we have to do some maintenance.
Here are my suggestions: Only clean up what’s absolutely necessary. If it’s a front yard showpiece garden full of ornamentals, there may be little harm to native invertebrate species if you do a thorough clean up spring or fall. But if you’ve chosen to plant a native garden, the impact of cleaning will be much greater. Plants like hostas deteriorate to nothing but mushy foliage by early winter, but Bee Balm and Black-eye Susan will stand tall and firm throughout the winter, so it’s important to leave their stalks standing. It’s okay to clean up succulents (e.g. hosta) but leave woody stems where you can. Leave leaves on your lawn and in your garden, by spring they will disappear. Don’t rake your lawn, leave grass clippings for fertilizer and a safe place for insects to hide.
Let me just finish by encouraging you to think carefully about when and why you clean your garden more than necessary. Happy gardening, but always remember the bugs!
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.
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Geoff Carpentier is a published author, ecotour guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.