By Tom Houser, Norfolk Botanical Garden Senior Horticulturist
One challenge that the staff here at NBG have in common with homeowners throughout the region is dealing with the annual falling leaves – now in full swing. Leaves of every size, color and description are dropping and blowing into our beds, trails and roads at an incredible (and at times demoralizing!) rate.
While we do have the luxury of having enough open and natural areas in the Garden to blow most of our leaves into, we purposely move a majority of our leaf debris into areas in need of organic enrichment. Some of my favorite areas are those where we can just let nature take its course – no blowing, no raking, and no stress. In portions of Enchanted Forest and Mirror Lake where this process has been taking place for decades, we have beautiful, loamy, organically rich soil that is a true joy to work with.
I’m sure that most of you reading this are already dealing with the leaves in your yard in an “eco-friendly” manner – things like using leaves as mulch or compost. You might want to consider taking this one step further…… by doing less.
Look at making room in your yard for a spot where falling leaves can remain year –round.
Here are some reasons you might want to consider doing this:
– Undisturbed leaf litter and the soil below is critical to the life cycle of numerous beneficial insects. Two of my favorite summertime insects are syrphid flies (aka hover flies) and fireflies. Many species of syrphid flies look just like small wasps or bees, an adaptation that affords them some protection from predators. As members of the order Diptera, they only have two wings as opposed to the four wings that bees and wasps have. The larvae of some syrphid fly species are a gardeners best friend, devouring up to 400 aphids (as well as thrips and scale insects!). While firefly larvae aren’t great hunters, their presence brings beauty to your yard and joy to the young and old alike. What do they have in common? Both need undisturbed areas where their pupae can mature overwinter.
– If you make room in your yard for an area like this, it usually means less work since you won’t need to mow or trim. That also means less pollution (air and noise!) from power equipment, and less potential for fertilizer/chemical runoff into local waterways if you treat your turf. While you will want to monitor the area for any invasive or undesirable plants, this will take far less time, effort and money than conventional lawn or bed maintenance.
– It also has the potential to bring a little “wild” into your yard. I changed about a third of my back yard into an area like this almost ten years ago, letting pine needles fall where they want and planting a variety of trees, shrubs and perennials (primarily, but not entirely native). I make sure not to create any disturbance (ie cutbacks) in this area until spring, after we’ve had a few days with temperatures in the 50s – by then the vast majority of overwintering insects will have matured, emerged and departed. I’ve been amazed at the increase in wildlife activity in my yard – and I now spend less than half the time mowing and raking that I used too!
I hope you take the time to consider an area like this in your yard, it’s a great way to “support your local insects.” And as one of my favorite saying goes….. You can’t build a house without a foundation, and you can’t build an ecosystem without insects!
Photo 1 – A syrphid fly (Toxomerus marginatus?) visiting Small’s Penstemon.
Photo 2 “No mow, no rake” area in my back yard.