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Plea for a (slightly) messy spring garden


With temperatures reaching 60 degrees in some places in February, landscapers already returning to properties, and a spring cleaning on the horizon, it’s tempting to tidy up the yard next to the house. However, proceed with caution here.

Any leaves or spent perennials left over from the fall played an important role during the winter, providing shelter and food for insects. And resisting the urge to sweep the yard can continue to foster a wildlife habitat for those beneficial creatures.

“We set up nectar gardens to attract butterflies, then rake the garden and literally throw them all out,” says Randi Eckel, an entomologist and owner of Toadshade Wildflower Farm, a mail-order native plant business in Frenchtown, NJ. about all the life stages of these insects instead of just focusing on the beautiful adults. We also have to feed their children.”

Now there are young stages of butterflies, moths and other beneficial insects nestled in last year’s leaves, some munching on rotting duff — leaves, twigs, bark and other plant debris. By waiting to clear your yard until the daytime temperature is consistently above 50 degrees for at least seven consecutive days, and approaching the job with a light touch, you can continue to give those youngsters a head start on life.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get started with yard and yard work. Here are suggestions for tackling spring cleaning in the yard without going overboard.

Link insects to their host plants. Many people know the common names of the native plants in their gardens. Less can each plant match the insect that depends on it for its nutritional and reproductive needs. For example, Baltimore checkerspots overwinter as caterpillars at the base of white turtlehead (Chelon Glabra), and swallowtail butterflies attach their pupae to Hubricht’s blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii). If you know which plants support which insects, and how, you will be less likely to want to disturb your garden.

Remove leaves from hard surfaces and paths. Take care of the garden and prevent slips and falls by clearing paths, patios, decks and driveways from leaves. While you’re at it, spread thin, thick, damp piles of leaves around the garden, which can attract ticks.

Unraveling the myth of the green thumb

If possible, move the leaves on the property – perhaps to forests, if you have them. Or scatter them around the base of trees to create garden beds. When fall arrives, these areas will serve as what Eckel calls “soft landings”: places where butterflies and moths that have been feeding on your trees can drop into a garden to hibernate instead of a lawn. But, she says, “don’t pile up the leaves like a volcano.” No tree likes anything vulcanized around the bark.

If you have space in your yard, consider mixing the leaves with fallen twigs to create a clump of shrubs. Adult mourning cloak, question mark and comma butterflies may overwinter in these piles next year. They are “some of the first butterflies we see in the spring,” says Eckel, who is also president of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey.

Jennifer Brunelle, owner of Greenleaf Designer Gardens in Littleton, Mass., advises her suburban Boston clients against having shrubs because her area is overrun with rabbits, which tend to nest in them. But Eckel is a fan. “A brush pile is so much simpler than a compost pile. This is where you stack sticks and excess leaves. Over time it settles and breaks down a bit, and you put more stuff on top of it.

Edge of the beds. Few things make a naturalistic garden more beautiful than fresh borders around beds. Use a straight-edged spade or half-moon cutter with a semicircular blade to cut into the soil along the existing edge. “Edges give a nice, sharp look that makes these gardens look very classy,” says Eckel. If plants overhang in the lawn, create a border further out and increase the size of the bed at the same time.

Handle storm damage. Perennials that have been bent or broken by wind or blizzards can be left alone. But if you want order, cut the stems where they snapped, leaving about 18 inches of intact stem if possible. Place the cut pieces near the plant, where they can decompose and the insects inside can eventually leave. Another option is to tie several cut stems into bundles with twine and lean them against a tree or place them in the back of the yard.

Post a wildlife habitat sign. With more native plant gardens popping up in front yards, a sign of wildlife habitat can mean the difference between side glances and the faces of excited kids and curious parents interested in creating such a garden themselves. “Passersby, family members and neighbors will understand that this is a conscious choice and is being done to help wildlife,” says Eckel.

You have probably already seen such signals. They may announce Certified Wildlife Habitat, Plants for Birds, or Certified Monarch Garden. But they all serve the same purpose of making it known that there is a method to the perceived madness. Some signs can be purchased, while others require certification through a conservation group such as the National Wildlife Federation (nwf.org), the North American Butterfly Association (nababutterfly.com) or chapters of the National Audubon Society (audubon.org).

Americans love mulch and many of us abuse it

Plan to replace hardwood mulch with living mulch. Locate bare spots in beds and fill them with low-growing groundcover perennials known as living — or green — mulch. This can reduce or eliminate the need for hardwood mulch. The plants suppress weeds, prevent erosion and retain moisture like traditional mulch, and over time certain varieties will spread. “There is an upfront investment for the plants,” says Brunelle. “But if you pay for mulch and the labor to spread it, then over time it will be cheaper to buy the plants.”

Brunelle recommends using low-growing prairie dropseed mounds (Sporobolus heterolepis), as well as blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), which she describes as “a mini iris with cute blue flowers.”

The most important thing is to keep your garden in perspective. “It’s not just the plants and flowers that make a garden exciting,” says Eckel. “It’s the butterflies, moths, bees, beetles and birds that interact with those plants and flowers.”

Monica Cardoza writes about outdoor recreation and conservation from Ridgewood, NJ Find her online at monicacardoza. com and on Twitter @ probably outside.

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