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Go easy at clean-up time

It seems there’s nothing gardeners want to do more at this time of year than get outside and rake and clip and tidy their yards. Yet a lot of what is being removed in fall and spring clean-up is actually really needed out there, by plants or wildlife.

This includes:

-Seedheads.  Leave the seed for the birds – chickadees like to break into the Milkweed pods, migrant sparrows will be all over the fluffy heads of Joe Pye Weed, goldfinches go at the Sunflowers and Coneflowers….  Nearly everything is a resource for something. But the seeds of weeds you want to stop from spreading are best put in the fire or otherwise disposed of (although weed seeds are a resource for birds if you don’t get round to it).

-Stems. The stems in your perennial garden can make for a picturesque scene, poking up out of the snow in January. And next year, they still have value. Heather Holm, author of the Pollinators of Native Plants, advises against cutting stems back to ground level during the spring cleanup. Many native bees and other pollinators use the hollow stalks as nesting sites. Leave about 18 inches on last year’s perennials’ stalks, she says – they will soon be concealed by new growth.

Lee Valley Tools (and other purveyors) sells a solitary pollen bee nest made out of plastic. The problem with these, Healther says, is that they have to be cleaned out or the nests start to harbour parasites and pathogens. If you provide natural nesting sites for solitary bees, the hygiene problem takes care of itself when the stem breaks down.

-Leaf litter. The best nutrients you can provide for your trees are the ones they manufacture for themselves in their own decaying leaves (or needles). Create a circle around the base of the tree and mulch the area with leaves (but don’t pile mulch up against the trunk, that would promote rot). Your tree will be much happier if you reproduce these natural forest conditions, rather than working hard to grow grass that competes for nutrients with the tree’s surface roots. Mulch insulates the root system against frost penetration in winter, helps conserve moisture to protect against drought in summer, and promotes growth of the fungal organisms that are a vital part of a tree’s ability to access nutrients and resist disease.

However, if your tree has a disease, remove the leaves and get rid of them (don’t compost). You could use leaf mould made from healthy leaves as an alternative mulch. All of the above applies to shrubs and perennials, too.

-Leaf litter critters. Invertebrates, beetles, butterflies and all sorts of pollinators overwinter in leaf litter. So do predators like spiders and ladybugs. Then, as the snow melts and the ground thaws in spring, the litter gets thoroughly turned over by resident birds or in-coming migrants looking for fresh protein to make up for hard times. In a healthy garden, there’s still plenty of life left over for pollinating plants and controlling pests all through the summer.

-Where cleaning is needed. As noted, any material from a diseased plant should be removed. The ground should be cleared around plants that are susceptible to disease like non-native roses, apple trees or peonies. (Add compost or leaf mould to replace nutrients). 

A vegetable patch is a completely different matter. Unless you’re practicing permaculture, your food plants are annuals and you move them from plot to plot on a three-year rotation to discourage a build-up of pests and disease. A vegetable patch should be cleared out, with all plant material consigned to the compost bin. Then spread or dig in manure or compost for next year’s fertility.

By the way, i am so keen on leaf mould (leaves that have been left to break down for 18 months) that I am happy to take the leaves of anyone who wants to get rid of theirs (though my advice is, don't, they are a precious resource). There will be a leaf drop-off point set up at the Return of the Native property in a week or so. Just leaves, please. 

Julie Barker
- 21 September 2014 at 08:32pm

Many thanks for this information, Kate! I will pass it on to the Midland Community gardeners. will you be passing on information for those who want to practise permaculture - or can you suggest a source of such info for our area?
- 22 September 2014 at 11:34am

Hi Julie - Permaculture is a holistic approach to food production which reduces the disturbance of the soil, thus controlling weeds. fostering beneficial insects and enhancing conditions for soil organisms. While I try to practice some of the principles of permaculture, I don't have any expertise in this area.
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