Put rake away; leave garden plants standing

By: 
Rob Zimmer
Columnist

By now, you have probably all heard about the benefits of leaving your garden plants standing throughout the winter.

We all claim to be happy to support the birds and insects and pollinators that call our area home, but then we make hypocritical moves like completely cleaning up garden beds and borders during the fall season.

If we are serious about protecting birds and pollinators, then we need to take another look at our annual habits.

As many birdwatching groups, pollinator watching groups, monarch groups and groups dedicated to saving bees and butterflies and more have pointed out, your garden is the key to maintaining their numbers.

The worst thing you can do is to completely cut back and clean up your garden in the fall. That is a hard truth for many gardeners, but if we are serious about saving and protecting these creatures, it is something we have to consider.

Here are some ways you can make your garden and yard more winter friendly to pollinators, song birds and more.

Don’t do so much heavy raking. Leave the leaves. You’ve all heard that phrase by now. Are you implementing it in your space?

Many butterflies, bumblebees and other native bees overwinter either as adults or cocoons or chrysalises among the leaf litter and dried stems in your garden. Heavy raking destroys these. Many of these organizations are also advising people not to use leaf blowers, as these are just as destructive to overwintering adult butterflies, chrysalises and cocoons beneath the leaf litter.

Don’t cut back all of your perennials and annuals. Leave them standing through the winter for winter interest, as well as for food for birds and shelter for overwintering insects.

Additionally, many native bees and other insects overwinter in the hollow stems of many of our perennials and annuals. Leave the stems standing to give them room and space and shelter for the winter. Save the complete clean up until May when they are out of their winter shelters and active.

Make brush piles with your perennials and stalks. These plants don’t necessarily have to remain standing in the garden to still provide benefits. Cut them back and stack them up to provide even more shelter for rabbits and song birds, as well as still providing winter shelter for insects and seed heads for food for the birds.

Grow natural bird food sources. This is so easy to do and so beneficial to our native bees, butterflies and songbirds. Plants like sunflowers, asters, zinnias, cosmos, bee balm, goldenrod, Joe Pye weed and others provide large seedheads full of natural food sources for birds.

Plant a crab apple. This is my No. 1 plant for birds all year-round. It is not too late to plant one now, and many nurseries have wonderful crab apples already loaded with fruit.

Implementing even just a few of these actions will go along way to help protect and increase pollinator numbers right here in our area.

Save the major cleanup until spring, and allow these creatures to enjoy the safety and shelter and nutritious treats found in your garden this fall and winter.

Rob Zimmer is a nature and garden author, public speaker and radio show host on WHBY. Readers can find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RobZimmerOutdoors.