Sally Mullins

Cooler days are prevailing and are perfect for all the chores we need to do in the fall.

This week I’m going to help you cut back on them. We have had to bring a couple deck plants inside and the dahlias weren’t doing well this year so I cut them back already. They’re in the basement where they will dry out and rest until next spring.

Damp days make it easy to pull any weeds still hanging around and to do some transplanting. If you don’t have time for dividing perennials, make a list of which ones are most in need of being thinned out so you can begin with them in the spring.

Through the years, change has always been inevitable and with all the variances in our environment, there are more every year. Our gardens not only provide beauty and food for us, there are many critters in their own ecosystem that depend on us for their year-round wellbeing (I am not talking about the deer).

I always felt gardens needed dead annuals and perennials tidied up and leaves raked for winter, but I am rethinking that now.

I have many times heard that it’s beneficial to allow fallen leaves to stay in your yard and garden. Tilling them into the ground in spring adds nitrogen and other nutrients, but, since we don’t grow any vegetables, it wasn’t anything we considered.

Now many experts are recommending leaving dead perennial and annual plant material as well as fallen leaves in the garden and here are a few reasons why.

Allowing plant debris to stay in the garden provides many pollinators and insects with a winter home. We all know the Monarch butterfly migrates south for winter, but many butterflies, such as the Viceroy, swallowtail and mourning cloak, stay put and overwinter right here in our area.

All butterflies develop from egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (chrysalis) and finally to the beautiful adults we see flitting about in our yards. Each species has developed their own strategy for surviving the winter in one of those 4 life stages.

Some winter as eggs or caterpillars under leaf litter in your garden. Swallowtails spend the winter in a chrysalis that looks like a brown sack the size of a Tootsie roll attached to a piece of wood or hanging from a dead plant.

Mourning cloak adults may hide in a hollow tog or large pile of dead plants before warm spring days entice them out to mate and lay eggs for the next generation.

Our bee populations are waning everywhere, and it’s important our native pollinators (unlike honeybees who live in hives all winter), have lots of plant debris to use as winter homes. Most indigenous bees nest in the ground and a cover of leaves assures them a safer winter.

Predatory insects like ladybugs and lacewings that devour nasty bugs all summer in your garden, use dead plant material and leaves for winter protection also. Completely cutting spent perennials to the ground and clearing out all the organic matter severely reduces their winter home options.

Wintering birds not only use the feeder, they also depend on fallen leaves to harbor the insects they munch on all winter. I’m sure we’ve all seen the rufous-sided Towhee back hopping in the leaves. It’s important to leave the ornamental grasses standing so the birds can eat the seeds all winter.

As with everything, there are exceptions to this rule and there are some perennial plants that must be cut back for winter. So ask someone if you’re in doubt about leaving them stand. Also, any diseased plant material must always be removed and put in the trash.

I know some of my OCD friends are having heart palpitations reading this and you folks can simply allow spent plants to remain in an area off to the side or in the back where you won’t see them.

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