Spirited Gardening Tips: Bedding Down for Winter

by Julia Bunn, the Spirited Gardner

The leaf raking work of the season is past for many of us but often some leaves which drop later in the season remain until spring. For native plantings this can be a good thing. As Trish Beckjord of Natural Garden Natives shared in her newsletter this Fall

“It turns out that, although a number of species (of butterflies) will migrate at least to the southern states, many stay right here in one form or another of their life cycle.  The Eastern Swallowtail hibernates over the winter as a chrysalis hanging from a tree trunk, fence post or hiding in the ground litter.

The color of the chrysalis will blend with the tree bark or leaf litter and be difficult to see but easy to accidentally rake up and put in a yard waste bag!

Eastern Swallowtail Chrysalis

Eastern Swallowtail Chrysalis

While Red Admirals will migrate to warmer climates, the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth also overwinters in the leaf litter as a chrysalis. On the other hand the Regal Fritillary, a beautiful butterfly of remnant prairies and identified as a species of concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, overwinters as a caterpillar as does the Viceroy, the Monarch look-alike.”

Plants actually evolved with the dying material of the previous year’s growth there to nourish the next year’s growth. When applied to the soil surface as mulch, leaf mold (Composted leaves) prevents extreme fluctuations in soil temperature, keeps the soil surface loose so water penetrates easily, and retains soil moisture by slowing water evaporation. When incorporated into the soil, this amendment makes the soil spongier so that it retains both moisture and air — a perfect environment for plant roots.   Leaf mold also supports the biological activity of soil, creating an environment for microbes such as mycorrhizae (fungi), healthy bacteria and nematodes that help thwart pests.

compost2For city yard owners, you can easily create your own Leaf Compost by going over piles of raked leaves with a lawn mower (or using a mulching blower) and then placing them in a plastic bag to over winter.  Poke holes into the bags so that moisture and air can enter in to support the break down of the leaves into this rich compost.  To loosen up sticky clay, mix abundant quantities of leaf mold into the top 6 to 12 inches of soil where you need it most.  When laid on top of the ground, leaf mold is an attractive and functional mulch and a natural foil for flowering plants, especially in a formal flower bed. There’s no need to dig the material in at the end of the season, either; just pile more on top.

And if you want to put those ground up leaves on your beds for a winter mulch, that also works. Just distribute it one inch away from the crowns of finikier plants with approximately a two inch thickness.

Many perennials benefit from a protective layer of mulch to help them overwinter.  Ideally wait until after several killing frosts and the soil has cooled. Spreading mulch too thickly over the crowns (base of the plant where the plant meets the soil) can trap too much moisture and encourage them to rot. Remove mulch gradually from around the plants crowns when spring growth begins.

If you’d like some assistance in figuring how to work with nature in your yard, solve a water problem or build a garden from scratch, you can see more about us by visiting our website at Spirited Gardener. You can also email us: spiritedgardener@gmail.com or call Julia Bunn at 872-888-4114 to schedule a consultation.  We also have Gift Certificates available for one-hour consultations or full garden designs as a delightful Holiday Gift.

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