Through education and observation, I learned I can protect wildlife and the environment on my property by how I do spring cleanup. Just think about what happens in the natural world. No one rakes up the leaves in a woodland. Branches and dead trees decompose where they fall. The same sections of our original tallgrass prairie probably did not burn every single year. Except for herbivores, no one cut back the plants in prairies, woodlands, wetlands and savannas. Here is how I updated my spring cleanup routine.
I do a prescribed burn but only on part of my prairie and woodland perennials, grasses and sedges each spring. Read more about my prescribed fires in “Preparing for the Arrival of the Red Buffalo“. I cut back a portion of last year’s dried plant material in the areas I do not burn. The plants I leave behind in the garden are not really noticeable once the surrounding plants fill in. Here’s what I do with the plants I do cut back. I leave some material on the ground in the garden and set aside the rest next to my compost pile. I’ve seen some folks leave the dried plant material along their paths or garden borders. Do not chop the dried plants into smaller pieces in case there are any overwintering insects on the plants. Learn more about overwintering insects from entomologist Doug Tallamy’s article :Insects in Winter.
Time saving tip: If you have a large yard or many plants like I do, try an electric or battery power hedge trimmer to cut plants back quickly.
Every spring and fall, I rake most of the leaves around my shrubs, trees and woodland perennials. Please read my article Leave the Leaves to learn why this is important. If I need any wood mulch for paths, I order from a local company who generates mulch from trees they cut and doesn’t add dyes. Yes, many companies dye their mulch (ugh!) or purchase their mulch from distant locations. One more tip: I let the mulch pile sit in the sun on my driveway for a month or two to bake any hitchhiking pests or diseases before I use it. Also remember to leave a few areas of bare soil for native ground nesting bees and allow you native plants to spread and fill in as a LIving Mulch.
Please tailor these suggestions according to the size, number of plants and type of plants, including invasives, on your property. Hopefully they’ll also save you time and money over a traditional spring cleanup where everything is manicured, unnaturally mulched with wood, or chopped up and hauled away. I recently had the opportunity this spring to explain to a curious neighborhood kid how the Anemone cylindrica seed fluff I did not cut back, is used to build bird nests. He thanked me for sharing. I hope many colorful insects and cheery songbirds will also thank me by gracing me with their presence.