Just think about what happens in the natural world each spring before starting your spring cleanup. No one rakes up the leaves in a woodland. Branches and dead trees decompose where they fall. The same sections of the tallgrass prairie and woodland did not burn every year. Except for herbivores, no one cuts back last year’s dried plant material or chops stems into tiny pieces. Here is how I updated my spring cleanup routine to protect wildlife and the environment.
I do a prescribed burn each spring but rotate my burn on different sections of my prairie and woodland. Read more about my prescribed fire in “Preparing for the Arrival of the Red Buffalo“.
For those areas I do not burn, I cut back a portion of last year’s dried plant material to around 15-24″ for stem-nesting bees,. According to bee and wasp expert, author Heather Holm, bees may create nests in the newly cut stems this year and there may be nesting bees in the stems I cut back to 15-24″ last year. The stems I leave behind are not really noticeable once the surrounding plants grow taller and fill in. For those plants I cut back, I leave some material on the ground in the garden and set aside the rest next to or on top of my compost pile, without chopping the stems. This will give any insects on the stems or inside the stems a chance to emerge. Even as the weather warms up, insects probably emerge at different times. I’ve seen some fellow Wild Ones leave the dried plant material stacked along their paths or garden borders., which is another way to leave stems around. 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 at various heights. .
I also Leave the Leaves in my garden. If there is a large pile around some of my plants, I move them gently aside or carefully relocate them to another garden location or compost pile without chopping. You never know what might be hidden in a leaf, even though I often inspect the leaves before relocating.
If I need any wood mulch for garden paths, I order from a local company who generates mulch from only local trees and doesn’t add dyes. Yes, many companies dye their mulch (ugh!) or purchase their mulch from far away. One more tip: I let the mulch pile sit in the sun on my driveway for a month 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. Learn more here: https://goodnaturedlandscapes.com/native-ground-nesting-bees/
Please tailor these suggestions according to the size, number of plants and type of plants on your property. Hopefully they’ll also save you time and money over a traditional spring cleanup where everything is manicured, unnaturally mulched heavily with wood, or wildlife is annihilated by leaf blowers, 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 (photo) fluff left behind 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.