If you are one of those gardeners who meticulously clean up your flower beds or perennial gardens each fall, consider backing off a bit.

According to the Penn State Cooperative Extension, suburban landscapes are a lifeline for plants and animals that have lost their native habitat to development. Wildlife is forced to depend upon our human-dominated landscapes for their continued survival.

Traditionally, fall gardening advice included cutting off perennials to ground level, raking this debris along with all fallen leaves, hauling everything off, and then covering the soil with mulch or compost. Gardeners gave themselves a good pat on the back, feeling that the garden was all tucked in and ready for winter.

Today, we have a better idea about the importance of back yards in the ecology of wildlife, including birds, butterflies and other native pollinators. Keeping a year-round habitat to attract and nurture these critters is one way you can help to reverse pollinator decline.

So instead of performing major housekeeping on your flowers, perennials and soil, create an organized mess. What you do, or don’t do, can make a difference.

Here are some tips to help make a welcoming back yard habitat this winter:

Recognize that some chores shouldn’t be put off, while others can wait till spring. Remove any diseased plants and their leaves. Any organic layers that might be harboring a fungus also should be removed. Many people wait until after one or two good frosts, when flowers and plants are down to the ground or still standing, but dry and crispy.

Put off pruning, even if it’s just dead shrub branches, until spring. The branches can offer shelter to wildlife and may be harboring some of next year’s crop of beneficial insects.

Use your lawnmower to chop/blow dried leaf litter into your flower beds, but don’t bury the plants. Instead, spread this free fertilizer out so it also covers the soil. Add compost if desired, but don’t disturb the soil since some wild bees and other beneficial pollinators are ground-dwellers.

Building this organized mess will benefit your backyard ecosystem. Layers of leaf litter provide shelter for dormant or hibernating pollinators and beneficial insects like bees, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles and predatory insects like ladybugs, among others. Likewise, if you don’t clear up the remains of your flowering plants, shrubs and native grasses, seeds, and berries will be available as food for small birds, and the clusters of stalks and stems provide shelter. The protected overwintering insects provide food for the birds, too.

As winter progresses, it might not look to human eyes like there is much seed left, but birds will still be feasting. So even if there’s a warm spell in February or March, wait until April for a real cleanup, when most of these dormant, hibernating or newly emerging creatures are ready to greet the spring.

Learn more online:

Penn State Cooperative Extension article on the importance of home gardening: extension.psu.edu/the-importance-of-home-gardens

Article on care for pollinators from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: www.fao.org/fao-stories/article/en/c/1127922/

Mary Beth Reilly is a Penn State Master Gardener. More information about the program is available at extension.psu.edu/programs/master-gardener.

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