Kind Cleanup for the Critters

This post is written by guest columnist, Master Gardener Steve Rothe. The gist of this article is that in order to promote pollinators and other beneficial organisms, consider that a perennial garden that is left too tidy over the winter will lower the potential for retaining and benefiting bees, wasps and other insects. Every gardener must choose where traditional garden cleanup and pollinator enhancing practices are appropriate in their landscape.

Eco-friendly gardening can include less garden cleanup. Gardeners could try some of these steps in perennial and wooded gardens (not so much in veggie gardens).

Photo courtesy Steve Rothe, MG
  • Cancel (or Curtail) the Cleanup – Skip (most) fall cleanup. Trash the worst pests; but leaving most plants in the garden over the winter benefits pollinators and other creatures.
  • Leave the Leaves – Many butterflies, moths and other invertebrates overwinter among leaves. Don’t mow or mulch them, leave them in the beds or piles.
  • Cool it with the Composting – Compost some material, but leaving some plant materials in the garden, even on the ground, helps critters and the soil.
  • Save the Stems – Help female bees find nesting sites by cutting hollow or pithy stems in the spring, 8”to 24” high. Next year’s bee population will develop in some of the stems, so leave them or put them in a protected site through next year.
  • Stretch the Spring – Some bees emerge early, so cut some stems in March. But for most bees, you can delay stem cutting until temperatures are consistently above 50°F. Delayed cleanup also allows more time for last year’s bee offspring and other creatures to emerge.
  • Guard the Ground – Most native bee species are ground nesters, so reducing wood chip mulch helps them find nest sites. We can also avoid tilling.
  • Snag the Snags – Logs and branches can provide nesting sites and habitat for invertebrates.
  • Build the Brush – Brush piles are a long-recommended way to provide shelter and food for critters.
  • Raise the Rocks – Rock piles or walls can provide crevices where bees can nest and overwinter.

Not all these steps are feasible for everyone. And food plots need good cleanup. But gardeners of perennial or wooded gardens may find some of these changes rewarding, for them and for other creatures. Many more detailed resources can be found online, including:

John Fech
Horticulture Extension Educator at Nebraska Extension
John Fech is a horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. The author of 2 books and over 200 popular and trade journal articles, he focuses his time on teaching effective landscape maintenance techniques, water conservation, diagnosing turf and ornamental problems and encouraging effective bilingual communication in the green industry. He works extensively with the media to extend the message of landscape sustainability, making over 100 television and radio appearances each year.
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