Autumn is officially here! Cooler weather is moving in and leaves are turning and falling to the ground. As you plan fall cleanup, consider the songbirds, butterflies, and other wildlife your yard can support and what they need to survive the cooler months. Leaving leaves where they fall and retaining standing spent stems of wildflowers and grasses helps wildlife and provides beneficial natural nutrients to your soil.
Leaving the leaves provides habitat for animals as they search for a place to hibernate. Frogs, snakes, salamanders, and many other animals rely on fallen leaves to provide cover in the winter months. Many caterpillars and pupae of moth and butterfly species overwinter in fallen leaves as well. Insects roll up in leaves on the ground, emerging in the spring as perennial plants begin to break dormancy.
Leaf litter is a vital food source for decomposers, like millipedes, snails, and worms, which not only help create soil, but are also important food for songbirds. Leaf litter is also a great natural fertilizer, helping bring nutrients back to the soil as it breaks down.
Many cavity-nesting bees make their homes in standing stems of native plants. Solitary bees will burrow through the pithy stems of wild hydrangea, shining blue star, and many other native plant stems to overwinter.
“Pollinating insects, songbirds, and other important and cherished wildlife are declining,” said Carol Davit, Executive Director of the Missouri Prairie Foundation and its Grow Native! program. “But homeowners can play an important role in sustaining and even enhancing their populations, simply by providing overwintering habitat on their property. Leaving the leaves and standing stems on even a portion of yards over the winter will make a positive difference.” (In spring, stems may be cut back 22 to 8 inches tall. New growth will push through these standing stems, which will eventually fall over on their own.)
The Grow Native! program offers a “Leave the Leaves” garden sign, which homeowners can install to help inform neighbors about the purpose of leaving leaves and stems in yards and gardens through the fall and winter. The Leave the Leaves sign is available at the MPF/Grow Native! online gift shop. Garden signs are made of durable composite aluminum, designed to withstand the elements, and are made locally in Missouri. Sales of garden signs and other Gift Shop merchandise support the conservation work of the Missouri Prairie Foundation and its Grow Native! program.
Autumn is also a great time to plant native plants. As cooler weather approaches, perennial native plants begin to go dormant and cease above-ground growth. Planting in fall gives roots time to set in and develop a foundation before the next season. In the spring, perennial plants have a head-start as they emerge naturally with a strong base beneath them.
Find suppliers of native plants in the online Grow Native! resource guide and plan a garden installation this fall.
Photo: American Hazelnut (Corylus americana) by Alan Branhagen