Leave the leaves—and other expert-recommended steps you can take in your garden to help bees and other wildlife thrive through fall and beyond
An autumn garden in Colorado brims with late-blooming aster and stiff goldenrod along with the stems and seed heads of coneflowers
COME AUTUMN, as temperatures drop and summer flowers fade, gardeners in most parts of the country turn their attention to the annual chore known as “fall cleanup” then assume they’re done until the following spring. But for gardeners who care about wildlife, autumn is an ideal time for tasks that have an impact year-round. “Just because the seasons are changing, don’t think there are no opportunities to help wildlife,” says National Wildlife Federation Naturalist David Mizejewski. “That’s especially true if you’re trying to support birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators.” Here’s what he and other experts suggest.
Leave the leaves. In many places, raking and bagging fallen leaves is expected—and may even be required by cities and homeowners associations. But the need to dispose of leaves is “one of the biggest false assumptions about fall cleanup,” says Mizejewski, “and it’s a bad idea if you want to help wildlife survive winter, see butterflies in spring or have your vegetables pollinated in summer.” Leaf litter on a garden bed creates habitat for wildlife, from small mammals and reptiles and amphibians to overwintering bees and moth and butterfly larvae. If you have too many leaves, rake to the corners of your property or use as mulch. Sending leaves to a landfill is the worst option, robbing your soil of natural fertilizer and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
Nurture fall-blooming native plants. Because many plants stop flowering by late summer, maintaining those that bloom into or through fall is critical for pollinators, including migrating monarch butterflies and native bees. In social species such as bumble bees and many sweat bees, “only mated queens live through winter, so they need forage to put on fat during late summer and early fall,” says James Cane, a biologist and head of the nonprofit WildBeecology. He recommends goldenrods, asters, sunflowers and, in much of the West, rabbitbrush.
Plant flowers for next spring. Contrary to conventional thinking, which embraces spring planting, “fall is the premier time of year for planting or transplanting,” says Cane. “If you get plants in the ground before the soil freezes, “they’ll have a chance to establish roots when they’re not trying to put out leaves or dealing with heat or drought, which can be tough on a perennial.” When choosing what to grow for pollinators, “focus on species needed by specialist bees that eat pollen only from a narrow range of plants,” says Mary Phillips, head of Garden for Wildlife™ programs for NWF, which publishes a science-based list of these “keystone plants” (nwf.org/keystoneplants).
Sow milkweed seeds. Monarchs have been hit hard by loss of the milkweeds their caterpillars need. In response, many gardeners cultivate these plants. If you sow seeds, it’s important to know that most milkweed species require a period of cool wet weather followed by spring warmth to successfully germinate—a step called cold stratification. While many gardeners store their milkweed seeds in the refrigerator until spring, it’s better to get them into the ground in fall. Make sure you only sow seeds collected locally to ensure the plants are native to your region.
Leave seed heads and flower stalks. Like fallen leaves, the stems and seed heads of perennials can be essential habitat for insects—especially some overwintering native bees—long after flowers have faded, says Mizejewski. Come spring, “cut the stems down to 10 or 12 inches, and native bees will nest inside.” If you prune back shrubs such as forsythia or blackberry, whose stems have hollow or pithy cores, bundle those on your property for more bee nesting sites, says Cane. Mizejewski points to an added bonus of saving seed heads until spring: “They will attract goldfinches, chickadees and other songbirds you can enjoy watching all winter.”
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