The little things that run the world
Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson
Little homes for little bugs
Now that spring is finally getting into its groove, I know you must be itching to get outside and take advantage of the newfound warmth and light. Especially now that the snow has melted, everyone wants to start cleaning up their messy gardens. It’s so hard not to instantly start cleaning up all the leaf litter you left on the garden last fall to help native insects overwinter. But hold on, where’s that concern for little local bugs now? We don’t just garden for humans (or, at least, we shouldn’t); we also need to always be aware of how much we’re giving back to all the little organisms that make our gardens great. Many native insects do not migrate, but instead are in diapause (a state akin to hibernation), resting in the hollow stalks of perennials and bushes. Cutting things back too early can deprive newly-awake insects of their cozy little homes. Don’t we owe our pollinators a place to stay while they warm up in the spring? Of course, once the temperature consistently reaches 50 degrees, it’s perfectly fine to start cleaning up leaves and stalks. By that time, all the little ones have had a chance to move out and start getting to work pollinating your flowers!
Carex blooms and Pulmonaria ‘Mrs. Moon’ in the leaf litter
If you’re still concerned about cutting things back even after temperatures have gotten higher, you can make a loose pile of cut perennial stalks on your compost bed or upright against a tree or fence. That way, you can be assured that everyone has had a chance to wake up at their own pace. Another option is to leave about 12”-18” of stalk when cutting back, giving little critters a place to stay while still maintaining a more organized garden.
As for the leaf litter on your beds, you can leave it where it is unless the leaves are too thick and are covering the crowns of your plants. There are so many beneficial adult insects that make their home in leaf litter, including the famously cute (and helpful) ladybug. A lot of insects also undergo several different life stages in leaf litter, so there may be the eggs and pupae of several different species growing up in your garden. This also provides much needed food for birds to forage, especially in the lean days of very early spring. In areas where you have planted small bulbs or have early ground cover that might have difficulty breaking through the leaf mass, you should gently take off just enough leaves to reveal the bulbs. Leaf litter also is a fabulous natural mulch that will keep your plants moist and improve your soil as it breaks down. Having leaves all over your garden might not fit with your perfectly organized vision of a neat and orderly garden, but it’s okay to be a little messy at times.
Happy spring gardening!