The first major snowfall recently signaled the end of the bustling garden season, and I’m glad for the respite from battling bindweed and low rainfall. We know the snow won’t stick around too long, and pleasant sunny afternoons might be an enticement to get out there and tidy up the yard.
What if I told you it was really a good thing to procrastinate on fall garden cleanup chores? Let’s step back and look at those dead flowers and ornamental grasses from the perspective of the birds and other critters trying to make it through another cold winter.
In previous articles, I’ve touched on various plants that encourage wildlife to visit your garden. The insects and birds that delighted us during the summer have their own strategies for surviving the coming deep freeze, and plants again play a major role in their survival. The monarch butterfly is the only pollinator in North America that always migrates to a warmer climate, so how do other pollinators cope?
Bumblebees die at the end of summer, except for the fertilized queen. She burrows into soil or leaf litter so that there is less variation in winter temperatures. And here’s a great Trivial Pursuit factoid: the hibernating queen produces glycerol, a natural antifreeze.
Depending on the species, butterflies will overwinter as eggs, caterpillars, pupae, or adults. They too depend on the production of glycerol or other sugars during the fall to prevent the formation of ice crystals in their cells.
My garden hosted black swallowtail butterflies, which overwinter as pupae. The host plant (where it lays its eggs) for the black swallowtail in my yard is dill, so I’m sure the next generation is present somewhere in the yard. Tall grasses, bushes, fence posts, a pile of leaves or sticks… this is where next year’s butterflies are sleeping. They don’t know to put out ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs, so we need to remember for them.
If you have an extra sensitive tidiness gene, cut back the offending perennials or grasses and leave the debris lying in the bed until spring to avoid throwing away hibernating pollinators.
Another aspect of closing down the garden for the season is reviewing what worked or didn’t and planning for next year. I’m dating myself by saying that I loved looking at the ‘Monkey Ward’ catalog as a child to see what Santa might bring. Looking through seed and plant catalogs in the depth of winter now fulfill that function.
We’re fortunate in Colorado to be able to view the vibrant yellows of aspens and cottonwoods, but it’s possible to add beautiful fall colors to our own yards. I would like to introduce you to an excellent plant that provides season round interest and fantastic fruit to boot.
This shrub/small tree is called serviceberry (Amelanchier species) here in the west because it blooms about the time of the spring thaw, indicating to the pioneers that basic services like funerals, baptisms, and marriages could be performed. It’s also called saskatoon, juneberry, or shadbush depending on where you live in the continental United States.
The beautiful white flowers produce blueberry-like fruits in June, much loved by wildlife and humans. Berries from my plants are waiting in the freezer to be thrown into a pancake mix for a touch of summer on a cold winter morning.
The serviceberry’s fall color is also reminiscent of blueberry bushes, as can be seen in the photo I’ve included. I had mentioned in a previous post that blueberries cannot be successfully grown here due to the alkaline soil, but serviceberries are totally adapted to our soils. Just be sure to keep the plants well-watered until they’re established.
Since I’ve already mentioned how you can reevaluate your approach to fall clean-up, here’s another idea to consider: reduce your lawn footprint. I get that a green carpet is necessary for kids and pets, but the wide expanse of a manicured lawn is a distinctly American obsession that may need to be reevaluated.
A Columbia University study determined that homeowners spend billions of dollars for lawn maintenance, including using up to TEN times the amount of pesticides and fertilizers per acre as farmers on crops. What’s worse is that most of these chemicals are wasted because of improper timing and application, and then end up polluting our creeks and rivers.
The same study noted that 30-60 percent of urban fresh water is used and mainly wasted on lawns, but taking our cues from Mother Nature means we aim for diversity instead of the monoculture of a lawn. Jennifer and Thom Laidig have embraced that concept on their property, as seen by the photo of their front yard.
The Laidigs understand that diversity means habitat for all sorts of life to survive through the winter. Late season blooms on the rabbitbrush, hummingbird mint, and Russian sage provide nectar and food for wildlife. Junipers, grasses, and sumacs create sources of overwintering cover.
This type of landscape provides year-round interest, instead of a static flat expanse of straw-colored grass. Jennifer and Thom will readily admit that they’re plant geeks, but you don’t have to get as exuberant to still have a positive effect. I can nearly guarantee that stressing less about a perfect lawn and focusing on bringing more life into your garden will help in navigating more serenely through our crazy times.