Do you take time to rake up the yard, deadhead the perennials and till the vegetable garden in the fall? Or do you leave things more natural? Leaving a “natural, “messy” yard may not win any good-neighbor awards, but it might help beneficials and insect pollinator populations. Consider letting things stay just as they are through winter — decayed and drab — but ecologically serviceable.
“People are increasingly recognizing the value of having good habitat throughout all the seasons,” said Deborah Landau, a conservation ecologist with the Maryland/D.C. chapter of the Nature Conservancy. “Sometimes it’s hard to make the connection with the insects you see in the garden in the warm months with the dried yard litter remaining when it cools, but it’s important to keep that structure going through winter.”
Such structure includes standing stalks of dead plants, especially under flower heads, where butterflies seek shelter, ground covers and vertical plant structure. If layers of leaf litter are left undisturbed they serve to provide habitat to protect beneficial insect larvae, egg masses, hibernating wild bees, dormant spiders and other beneficial insects. Bare soil is less useful.
“Cavity-nesting bees provision their next generation in hollow canes such as raspberries, brambles and ornamental grasses,” said Rebecca Finneran, a consumer horticulture educator with Michigan State University Extension. Hollow cane plant material and fallen stems/woody plant material should be left or can be preserved by placing such material in an out-of-the-way location such as behind a compost pile, so the next generation can still hatch. “The main thing is not to destroy the stems,” she said.
Want to do something more pro-active to assist pollinators in your yard/ community? Consider building an Insect (bug) Hotel. Part art, part habitat, insect (or bug/bee) hotels are an inexpensive, easy and fun way to provide food, shelter, and nesting and hibernation space to all manner of bugs: native bees, lacewings, beetles, ladybugs, wasps and other beneficial insects. To get started see https://gardentherapy.ca/build-a-bug-hotel/
Gathering material that might have been diseased makes sense. You don’t need to leave the inoculum for next season. “… just clean up in the front yard and let things go in the back,” Landau said. “Remove any layers of material from the garden that might have fungus in it. But if it’s simply dead, leave it alone.”
Adding new perennials including bulbs, trees and shrubs at a time when fall moisture can help establish their root systems is good and planting early spring bloom bulbs can help provide food for early spring pollinators.
Avoid disturbing soil or landscape berms where many wild bee species, including bumblebees, might have established their nests. Brush piles are great wintertime protection for a variety of wildlife species, and the more you can leave them untouched, the better. Clumps of dead annuals such as chrysanthemums will trap blowing leaves, creating habitat for overwintering beneficials.
So you can justify not doing those yard chores. Don’t however neglect the bee hives. Provide winter protection, help reduce excess moisture, secure hive covers and close bottom screens or reduce winter wind entry to improve overwintering. There is still time to feed a heavy sugar syrup (feeders placed on top of colonies) as sugar water honey is beneficial for overwintering.