Fall is the time for the annual ritual of raking up fallen leaves. If you are especially prudent, you may even cut down your perennials then.
This “debris” may then be put in bags to be hauled away. Perhaps it is raked to the curb and sucked up by large noisy machines. Maybe if you’re a die hard gardener you add it to a compost pile.
If you are in an area that still allows it you may even get to indulge your inner pyromaniac by burning your leaves.
Or maybe you said “ah to hell with it, there’s a Football game on!” and raked your leaves off your grass into your garden beds, I’ll take care of it in the Spring.
Spring Clean up
Well Spring has come and it’s time to do something with all that “debris”.
If you have a lot of deferred maintenance out in the yard, you shouldn’t feel bad. In fact, you may have done one of the smartest things you could have done with your garden “debris”.
Perennials left standing can provide winter food for birds
Many perennials left standing through winter provide food for birds.
Smaller birds, like chickadees and goldfinches feed right off of the plant. They tend to like plants such as black eyed susans, purple coneflowers, coreopsis and asters.
Larger bird, such as cardinals, tend to scratch and peck around on the ground for fallen seeds.
Besides helping to feed birds, leaving dried seed heads on plants add winter interest to the garden. Stems topped with spiky coneflower heads or the “airy” seed heads of Joe-Pye weed can add much needed interest to the winter garden.
Leaf and Garden debris as Mulch
In the forest, Leaves and twigs that have fallen to the ground make up “leaf litter”. Leaf litter is a crucial part of healthy soil.
When it decomposes, leaf litter adds nutrients to the soil. It also helps to act as a natural mulch moderating temperature swings and suppressing weeds. It can do the same in your yard.
It does more too.
Leaf and garden debris as a home to bird food
In the forest leaf litter provides protected spots and hiding places for animals, as well as nesting material for birds. In your garden it can do the same.
It also can provide the perfect home for a diverse range of animals. This includes such critters as worms, beetles, frogs, and spiders. I know, who wants them in your yard?
If you realize that 96% of nesting birds feed their young insects exclusively, you understand if you want birds around, you need to have insects around. See my post Would you want a 70 foot statue in your yard? for more on this.
Maybe you are not a bird lover, you just want your plants to look good.
Debris as a home to your personal army of exterminators
Consider a study performed by Susan Riechert, Ph.D., a professor of zoology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. It compared the amount of insect damage to vegetable gardens which were either a hay mulched or bare soil.
She found 60 to 80 percent less damage to the plants from insect pests due to the fact that there were 10 to 30 times as many spiders in the hay mulched gardens.
Spiders need high humidity and any bulky mulch such as hay or leaf litter will keep the ground moist and cool. They also offer an attractive habitat for the spiders to live in. Leaf litter does this better than heavy dense mulch such as fine shredded bark mulches.
Leaf litter is considered very biodiverse, especially when compared to our typical grass or stripped clean beds. It is also more biodiverse than the wood or bark mulch you add to your yard for that clean well manicured look. It’s also thankfully, cheaper.
So you’re saying I shouldn’t clean up my beds?
- If debris has a lot of weed seeds and diseased leaves in it, your best bet is to probably get it out of your yard.
- If there are lots of seed heads in the debris that you don’t want reseeding, you should remove these. Actually, you should have removed these before the seeds matured last year.
So what should you do with the rest?
If you don’t mind a messy look, you can cut your perennials down and just lay the debris right there on the ground. It will break down eventually.
I admit this is a bit too messy for most of us.
How about instead, you raise the blade on your mulching lawn mower a bit and mow your perennials and leaf litter a few times?
I got this idea from Roy Diblik in his recent book The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden.
This may sound like heresy to some. It will however effectively turn your leaves and debris into little bits of mulch. It turned my bed of Purple coneflower, Monarda and other perennials into a finely cut mulch in a matter of minutes.
If you have too many woody plants to mow around, you can cut your perennials down and rake them and the leaves out to a clear area. Then mow them into little bits there. Then just rake them back into place.
This is what I did with the leaves in my bed of Vinca minor ‘Bowles’. I raked them onto a patio area, mowed them a couple of times and raked them right back into the bed on top of the vinca. The leaves are now small enough that they will settle onto the ground under the groundcover.
If this sounds a bit too easy, you could always do it the way it’s done in most gardens:
- Clean the leaves out of the beds,
- Cut down the dead foliage of the perennials,
- Haul it out from every bed
- Pay somebody to take it away,
- Pay somebody else to bring mulch
- Haul that across the property
- Spread it on your cleaned out beds.
To me cutting down your perennials and grinding them and your leaves up right where they are sounds like a simpler and easier alternative.