Now that the weather has gotten cool and the leaves are off the trees, we humans often think we have to tidy up our landscape. Since there are no more pretty flowers blooming and the colorful red and bronzes of the grasses have subsided, we are tempted to get out the mower and cut everything down. But whoa there! Your natural area still has critical ecological benefits to provide. Here are a few reasons from Minnesota’s Natural Shore Technologies, Inc why it is important to keep your senesced plant material up through the winter and into spring.
A multitude of animal species are actively looking for food and shelter this time of year. Severe winters present even more challenging conditions. In our urban areas, manicured landscapes, like turf grass lawns, can be considered biological wastelands and make winter tough for animals. On the flip side, restoration areas are critical biological oases. Animals like birds, mice, rabbits and many others rely on native plant seeds for food, and dormant grasses and stalks for shelter to stay warm. Butterflies, bees, moths, beetles, and other insects also use leaf litter and other debris to overwinter, making our native plantings even more important to pollinators.
- Leaving material in your natural landscaping can also be eye-catching when the snow and ice start to fly. Looking outdoors to a winter wonderland and spotting snow-covered Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) heads and vibrant colored Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) along with Red-Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea) branches seemingly growing out of the snow make us pause and give thanks. Overwintering birds like the Cardinal, Blue Jay and Chickadee also appreciate the nice mix of thanksgiving seeds.
- Leaves are a natural fertilizer; phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients slowly release into the soil as the leaf material decomposes. Most University Extension Offices now suggest just mulching leaves in lawn areas and letting them sit in natural areas. Taking leaves away, only to add fertilizer to lawns in the summer, wastes resources. Research suggests leaf cover can provide a natural weed barrier.
So fight the urge to cut down and clean up. Instead grab a warm cup of tea, look out the window and know your debris covered natural area will provide very important food and cover for a multitude of animal species, present a pretty picture during a long winter, and provide natural nutrients next spring.