Wildlife and Pollinator-Friendly Fall Garden Checklist

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There are a lot of articles and lists around this time of year outlining what you need to do to make a healthy garden.  A whole heap of chores.  So much raking and pulling and hauling and tidying.  Tidying for who?  Your backyard winter parties?  Santa?

I’m going to tell you to stop tidying up your yard and garden in the fall/winter.  All that tidying is destroying habitat and making it more difficult for backyard wildlife.

All summer long, through your diligence in selecting native plants, careful use of only natural and organic fertilizers or pest deterrents, bird baths, mason bee homes and oodles of nectaring flowers you built up a healthy population of native bees, bugs, birds and maybe amphibians and reptiles.  Why destroy all that hard work with ‘tidying’.

So many fall garden “must dos” are really “must don’ts” if you want to help wildlife survive through the winter.  So to counteract those lists I’ve made my own.  A fall garden checklist for wildlife and pollinators.  You can find the quick version of the list here, but below I go into more detail for each line item.  And trust me, much like my ‘Fall Veggie Garden List‘, which focuses on building the soil for next year’s abundance, this list doesn’t involve nearly as much work as those more ‘conventional’ ones.

Onward!

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You can download an A4 sized printable version here to paste into your garden journal, planner or for the fridge!
  1.  Divide perrenials

Fall is a great time of year to divide perrenials.  The classic rule of thumb is to divide in the fall plants that are spring bloomers and in the spring divide the fall bloomers.  I don’t listen to any of that.  I divide most all of them in the fall.  Mainly because in the spring, as everything is barely up and showing I don’t always rememebr who is who.  Once perrenials get more than 2-3 feet across they can suffer, with their middles dying out.  Give some to friends- better even still if this can convert them to a native plant lover.  Or make a new bed of your own, like I did last month, turining my dead front yard into a meadow.  Alternatively, head to the garden store if you need to stock up.  Perrenials are often sad and scraggly looking- and sold for deep discount this time of year.  But you and I know that they’ll be just fine and come back next year looking fresh.

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Get out that shovel and divide those perennials!

2.  Assess the compost pile.  Turn/sift and topdress around the yard.

Fall is a great time to feed your beds with a sprinkle of compost.  Some folks are wary of giving plants a nitrogen source in the waning days of fall- thinking it will cause extra shoot growth and energy expenditure to only be smacked back by frost.  Sure- conventional potent nitrogen might do this.  But compost is slow release.  It will slow breakdown and seep into the soil in fall, throughout the winter and in early spring.  The weak light and cooling temps are cues enough to your plant to stop investing in shoots.  Don’t add too much though, a sprinkle will do.  Bugs will also feed off of some of the not entirely rotted stuff, giving them a boost before winter.  Squirrels might find some forage in there too.  Compost feeds your soil and all the critters that run around in your soil.

3.  Sew seeds that need cold stratifying

Some seeds need a blast of cold before they germinate.  True, you can replicate this in your fridge. I sure do- especially when I have a very specific notion of where I want something to be.  I stratify in my fridge, pot it under grow lights in March and come May I put it in the ground.  But for some areas, you just want something to fill in.  For that, fall is your time.  Lots of native plants need this cold time to properly germinate.  Milkweeds come to mind, as do native alliums, columbines, goldenrod, boneset… lots.  Sometimes I’ll sprinkle a seed pack.  Other times I’ll cut a few seed heads off of plants I already have and sprinkle them.  Sure, I’ll save seeds and try it indoors.  But nature knows how to propagate itself.  You don’t always have to do much to nudge it along.

4.  Mulch with leaves.

Leaves are an excellent and abundant source of nutrients for your entire yard.  One that you can probably snag from the curb on yard waste pickup day for free.  Some folks swear by making leaf mold, a compost made of leaves- but you can get benefit and help wildlife and pollinator habitat by just raking some whole or cut up leaves into your flower beds.  Your beds will get the nutrients and ground nesting bees and bugs will get cover and warmth.

5.  Stick pile

When those leaves come down, sometimes sticks do too.  Fall always seems windier.  I have a small yard, so most of it is ‘used’ and intentionally planted.  But I do keep one corner as the stick corner.  Brambly wild piles of sticks, bark and other yard rubbish are excellent bug and animal hidey places.  Larger animals can visit these piles for items to fortify their nests and burrows and bugs and crawly things will happily live in the protected stick pile.  If you live near the woods, that whole area is basically a stick pile.  But if you garden in an suburbabn or urban place like I do, creating a messy stick corner can give a nice habitat space without taking up too much of your tiny precious yard.

6.  Leave seed heads & ornamental grasses standing.

This is where this list really veers off from traditional fall garden lists.  I’m going to tell you.  Don’t. Clean. Up. Your. Plants.  Especially not the seed heads and the ornamental grasses.  Sure, remove diseased things.  If you want to remove something because you don’t like it or it didn’t perform- go for it.  I cut away my morning glory because my god I don’t need those things self seeding anymore than they do.  And the same goes for garlic chives- once those things stop blooming I cut them back because I don’t want a whole yard of garlic chives.  But I leave EVERYTHING else.  Every last rotting and falling apart hosta.  Every last droopy aster.  Every black headed Rudbeckia.

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These sunflowers still have lots of seeds for birds to forage on.  Leave them up!

I know that you know that flower seed heads are excellent forage for song birds.  My goldfinches are constantly feasting on the sunflower… the coneflower… the Helianthus… the Rudbeckia.  Why deny them that?  Sure, I fill a feeder.  But dried out seed heads are choice.  And boy is it an excellent show in the dead of winter.

As for the rotty hosta and droopy aster?  Bee homes… bug homes…toad homes.  Many native bees and most bugs overwinter underground and in leaf litter.  Disturbing that disturbs their homes.  ‘Nuff said.  Plus, through winter and into the spring thaw some of that material will decompose and feed your soil.   It will also protect tender buds and shoots next spring from errant frosts and chilly nights.

Once the danger of frost is gone, then you can clean stuff up.  Yeah, it’ll look a little gross.  And I’d be a liar if I said I never cleaned anything up.  But leave the lions share of it down until practically your frost date.  The bees will thank you.

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Look at all those dead stems and leaf matter under this columbine!  Past me would have scooped it up!  Current me sees this as a bee house, a bug house, compost, and bird bedding material.  It is staying!

7.  Clean out birdbaths, pollinator puddlers, bird feeders and garden art.

With a change in season it’s a good chance to clean these things up and store as needed.  I put my pollinator puddler away in the fall, mainly because I don’t go to that part of the yard as much, so it’s often out of mind.  The birdbath I’ll keep out until December.  Now will be the time to more consistently fill the birdfeeders.  And I’ll clean and sterilize the hummingbird feeder.  Birdfeeders are of course an excellent way to ensure that some of the birds that called your yard and neighborhood home during the summer are happy to stay all winter.  Birdfeeders do not ‘spoil’ birds and make them forget how to forage for themselves, so don’t feel like you’re doing them an ultimate disservice.  If you have toad homes you can remove them once you are sure the inhabitants have burrowed underground for winter.  Some are made of terracotta and might take a beating under a lot of snow, but some might be fine.  Use your judgement.

8.  Finally, look back at the year.  How was it and what are next year’s goals.

Fall is a great time to begin planning next year, when things are more fresh in your mind.  Come February, when I typically haul out my (half completed) garden journal and all the seed catalogs I tend to bite off more than I can chew!  Fall, you remember better what worked and what didn’t as you can walk around the yard and still see those plants that you may need to take note of.  And fall and winter is when we have more time.  There were so many ideas I had, articles I read that I didn’t have the time to read, absorb and plan it out.  I was busy getting dirt under my fingernails!  But now I can indulge in garden books and blogs and make a great game plan for next year!

So that is my fall checklist for a garden that is friendly for pollinators and wildlife.

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Prep Your Vegetable Garden For Fall

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Welp we did it.  Most of us are pretty much done the gardening season.  Sure we can look forward to cool season crops, but the wild abundance of summer is gone.  For me, in zone 5b New England the cooling nights for sure takes a toll, but in my urban garden surrounded by other folks’ houses it is actually the sunlight I lose first.   The low angle of the sun just can’t peak up and around the house, and so the sun hours are way down.  So it’s time to put most of one garden bed to…bed.

Let me show you how I do it- for the vegetable garden.

Here are 6 fall garden tasks to really set your garden ahead and ready for spring.

1)  Weed.

photo source

In theory your garden mulching & targeted watering strategy have left not too many weeds.  But some always will poke their way through.  And while you probably can’t linger by your garden without picking an errant weed, by the end of summer things can get a little…wild.  Pull the weeds.  Get out a tool for the deep rooted ones.  You don’t want to add to the weed seed composition of your garden.  Ok, that’s easy.

2).  Don’t pull all of veggies out… at least… not all of them

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Wait, wah?  Let me explain.  First, you should try to remove as much plant material always at all times from anything that looks diseased.  I’m not talking a touch of powedery mildew on squash- that stuff is everywhere.  But in the fall, we should try to remove, root ball and all, plants that are prone to disease.  I’m talking tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes (though in theory you did this at harvest).  One year basil all had a wilt.  So I yanked it.  Anything that can give your trouble.

What you shouldn’t pull are plants that don’t often have disease issues and especially not nitrogen fixing plants like beans and peas.  As I wrote about before, the root system of plants represents a huge subterranean nutrient source- mainly carbon.  We gardeners go to great lengths trying to infuse more carbon into our soil, via compost and mulches.  So why yank it up if it’s in already there?  Like way in there?  Especially the legume family plants which will leave behind their big root nodules, full of nitrogen and nitrogen fixing bacteria.  What do we also love?  Nitrogen.  So leave all that in.  I typically cut those plants out at the base and toss them into the compost pile, provided again, they look otherwise healthy (if not wilty and tired)

3) Add Compost & 4) Mulch

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At the end of a long growing season the bed can be a bit depleted.  Especially a new bed that hasn’t worked up a ton of organic material from many previous years of leftover roots, as mentioned above.  What I like to do is add a one inch layer of compost down.  I’ll either use my own backyard compost, the commercial compost I get from our urban compositing provider, or composted cow manure.  These materials will continue to break down and compost in place through the next few months and pick up again in the spring.  Soil structure will improve over this time through the growth of mycorhizae, which if you had to pull up a lot of diseased plants will need some time to recover.

I then top it off with another inch or two of organic mulch.  This is mainly for weed suppression, but it will also minimize the critters picking away and a half-composted corn cob.  Hey, it’s been known to happen.  I use composted leaf mulch or composted bark mulch.

5) Covercrop

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I used to think that cover-cropping was exclusive to the realm of industrial or at least large farms.  Not my 12×12 urban garden!  But then I saw my neighbor doing it and I was hooked.  The advantages are numerous.  Less weeds, better water retention, better soil structure and if the varieties are chosen well, nutrients are added into the soil, not taken away.  Also, since this isn’t stuff that you eat (well, you could, but pressure’s off) You don’t really have to give it a lot of love or attention.  Just let it be.  In the spring, it will probably be dead and mushy.  Turn it into the soil.  Some folks are anti-till.  I say a little scratching around so a rotted radish isn’t making an eye-sore is ok.

Now, there are lots of covercrop blends out there.  So much fascinating research has gone into different plants or mixtures of plants.  I find it amazing and I really need to learn more.  But for my little garden I have kept is small and simple:  Snap peas and daikon.  Importantly, both growth in cool weather.  Both I can also get a seed packet or two for cheap (often times cover crop blends are sold by the pound… I don’t need that!) and they both add to the soil.  And that is the point.  Peas add nitrogen and daikons bio-drill.

6)  Winter Crop!

Image of rust-free aluminum frame with insect screen and solid polycarbonate panel pulled back to show screen

photo source

Consider putting in a cold frame.  Maybe not this moment, but soon.  We’ve had intermittent success with ours.  I mean, there was that winter 3 years ago that snowed 7 feet in February.  Boston broke.  My cold frame did too.  But, when spring finally came, that cold frame, lodged in the snow, heated up.  And it heated up the bed around it too, not just the stuff inside.  So while I wasn’t able to get to my spinach through the blizzard, I was harvesting things way earlier than planned.  So even if you think you’d like to pass on January lettuce, even though your one friend in Maine boasts of doing it… think of how you’ll feel in early March when gosh darn it all you want is something green.  Trust.

And those are my 6 fall garden tasks I do to set myself and my garden up for a stellar spring.  What do you do?

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Top Five Annual Flowers to Improve Soil

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As a gardener you quickly realize how intricately connected the health of what you’re growing is linked to the health of your soil.  Soil rich in organic matter, with balanced pH, minerals and a thriving microbial and fungal community will deliver vibrant plants.

Typically, I prefer perennial flowers.

If sited in your garden correctly (that is, the environment, sun exposure and moisture and general soil attributes), after a little babying the first year- perennials can grow with minimal input from us for years.  And after a few years, you can even divide them to fill in other areas of your yard.  Bonus plants!  Plus, this way I can chose native plants that will serve my area and wildlife best.

But I’m not talking about perennials today.  Today I’m talking about annuals. 

I generally prefer annual plants that readily self-seed.  See, I don’t like spending a lot of money at the garden store on something that will die towards October.  Especially if I’m not eating it.  (I spend plenty of money at the garden store on other things!)  And while I start some plants indoors by seed, I don’t have a huge space or set up to accommodate starting flats and flats of annuals from seed, like my mom can.

Also, I really want my annuals to work for it.  Not just be pretty, or serve as nice cut flowers or feed pollinators and wildlife.  I like annuals that just by physically being there is improving my garden.  I clearly demand a lot.

So I put together this list of no-fuss annual flowers you can plant that have an amazing quality about them- they can actually improve your soil while they are growing, looking beautiful and helping pollinators.  Most of these self seed decently too in my 5b garden- or it’s easy to pick a few seeds and scatter them around while expecting a few to come again the next year.

Let’s get to that list!

1.  Sunflowers

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Sunflowers are super at improving soil.  Why?  Their huge root system.  Sunflower roots reach deep into the ground to access water and support their massive height and weight.  All those roots mean that organic material (the roots themselves) are distributed far and wide throughout the soil.  When the plants die come frost-time, all that root material stays in the ground and will decompose over winter.  What I typically do is cut the plants down at ground level, never pulling the root ball out so as to preserve that material in the ground.  Then, as an added bonus I’ll strip many of the leaves and leave them laying on the ground as mulch.  It’s not the prettiest- but nothing is super pretty in November and it’s my backyard.  In addition to serving as critical nesting and protection for ground dwelling animals and bees, the sunflower leaves are full of minerals that have bioaccumulated within the plant- those minerals have been brought up from taht deep and extensive root system.  Finally, I”ll cut off most of the spent flower heads and chuck them on the ground too.  We’ve had sunflowers for years now and I’ve never planted a one- the birds and animals disperse the seeds through their foraging- and I’ve thrown a few flower heads around and plants always emerge from those sites.

2.  Sweet Pea

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Photo credit: Annie’s Annuals

Sweet Pea makes the list for it’s nitrogen fixing properties.  Plants in the legume family all fix their own nitrogen out of the air due to the symbiotic relationship they have with Rhizobium, bacterial that set up shop in root nodules in legume family plants.  There are lots of pretty legume family plants to chose from, but sweet peas are beautiful in a classic sense and can be at home in any garden.  My neighbors would never care what I have growing in my front yard, but for some reason some folks neighbors do care (don’t they have other things to worry about?) and if that’s the case, beautiful sweet peas snaking up your trellis or fence is a bit more sightly than a mass of scarlet runner beans.  At the end of the season be sure to leave the root systems in the ground- cut the plant at ground level.  All that nitrogen can stay in the soil for the next year.  And the plant makes an excellent addition to your compost pile.

3.  Sweet Alyssum

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I’m including alyssum not for what it does to the soil per se, but how it can protect the soil.  One component of healthy soil is retaining moisture.  High percentage of organic matter (6-8%) helps with this, as does a top layer of mulch.  But the concept of a living mulch should not be overlooked.  A living mulch is basically a ground cover that shields the soil from sunlight, keeping moisture in and weeds out.  Alyssum is low- generally never more than a few inches high.  It’s easy to pull out or push aside, should you want to plant into your living mulch.  I find that it self seeds, but is fairly patchy, so I will sprinkle more seeds around to help it out.  It comes in so many colors too- it can easily compliment any garden.

4.  Borage

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Image Credit: World of Flowering Plants

Borage is another prolific self-seeder.  It can border on a weed but it’s easy to pull and if it pops up in the grass, mowing it down will stop it in it’s tracks, so it’s hardly a bother.  Borage, like sunflowers have a deep root, and thus like sunflowers will leave a massive root system in the soil come the end of season and can bioaccumulate minerals from deep underground.  Borage’s root is more like a taproot and thus can be thought of as a ‘biodrill’.  Biodrilling is the concept of breaking up tough, particularly clay soils & compacted soil using a strong taproot.  Daikon radish is very adept at this and is often used as a cover crop for this purpose.  The taproots allow water to better penetrate the soil and make it easier for next year’s plants roots to go deep into the soil- literally following in the footsteps of last season’s taproot.  Borage has lots of other great characteristics as well that I’m not even going into here (edible leaves, flowers, companion crop) so if you’re interested, seriously check it out.

5.  Bachelors Buttons

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Image Credit: The Spruce

Bachelor Buttons make this list mainly in their no-fuss nature.  Bachelor buttons are often added to flowering cover crop seed mixes because they don’t require much water, can withstand lots of conditions and quickly leaf out.  This quick to add leafy material quality is what makes bachelor buttons a nice ‘living mulch’.  If you need to cover some soil for a few months, want it to look pretty, and then want to till that all under again, look to bachelors buttons.  The small and thin leaves rapidly break down, making it an ideal flowering cover crop that can be quickly and easily tilled back into the soil.

So that’s the list.  What say you?  Do you know of any other easy and beneficial annual that I can use to bulk up my soil?  What about perennials, I think I’ll make that list next!

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