Leave the Leaves for a Pollinator-Friendly Backyard

Yard Signs available HERE

 

Sometimes I wonder if bagging leaves started as a practical joke on us homeowners. As an artist and a gardener, I can tell you that getting rid of leaves is one of those suburban traditions that just doesn’t make sense.

Leaves are great natural mulch.

From a gardener’s perspective, leaves are healthy. They are Nature’s great compost, perfectly designed to enrich the roots of trees, shrubs, and flowers. They have nutrients in them that the trees draw up from deep in the soil. WHY would we throw them out?

From an artist’s perspective, leaves are no problem. They’re brown, just like mulch. They look great in your beds, around your shrubs. If your leaves look “too big,” just run the edges of your beds over a few times with a mower or put them in a shredder before you blow them into your shrubbery beds.

The entire trick to mulching with leaves is this: edges. If you can’t part with the look of neat beds, purchase a few bags of brown mulch. Mound the mulch along the edges of the beds. Six inches in, let it thin out. Take a few handfuls and scatter it into the bed so the mulch blends into the natural shredded leaves.

Take it from an artist – the human eye is mysteriously attracted to neat edges, and for some reason will ignore all kinds of messiness – if only the edges are neat.

Save money on mulch. Save money on fertilizer. Leave the leaves.

Leaves are a haven for pollinators.

 Leaves make a healthier landscape. They hold moisture. Among the leaves are the cocoons of hundreds of butterflies and moths who are natural pollinators. Along with the leaves in our beds are dry stems and pieces of wood that shelter small pollinating bees over the winter. The nutrients and microbes of leaf litter sustain thousands of insects and the small animals who eat them – snails, fireflies, lizards, birds, turtles, salamanders…

They all depend on the nutrients of leaf litter for the foundation of their food chain.

Community trends favor healthier landscaping.

Over the past few years, savvy communities and neighborhoods have been easing away from the sterile look of chemical- and maintenance-dependent turf. These neighborhoods have developed standards which allow more natural designs of native grass and wildflower landscaping. Pollinators thrive. Dragonflies flourish and control mosquitos.

The healthiest and most stress-free fall yard you’ve ever enjoyed might be yours with this one simple idea –

Leave the Leaves.

 

Help educate your community!
This infographic is available to share with your community, group or in your publication.

Yard Signs available HERE

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Mexican Migrants In My Backyard: Monarch Butterfly Migration

Art of a Monarch butterfly Garden, Watercolor by Ann Litrel

Now that my boys are grown and gone, I sometimes feel like the only kid left outside in our neighborhood. When I see a turtle, I run out to take a picture and give it a name. (So far I’ve named eight.) When my husband finds a cool bug like a writing spider or praying mantis, he knows to send me a picture because it makes me happy.

And in September every year, I go out in my garden to look for monarch caterpillars in my milkweed.

Passing neighbors no doubt wonder what I’m doing – a middle aged lady with sketchbook and camera, crouching down to stare at something no one else can see. That’s okay. As the world becomes more developed, I’m interested in what small animals, bugs and critters can survive in my yard – a tiny oasis of wild plants and flowers in the middle of a big subdivision.

Who Feeds Them?

When I was a kid, every first grade classroom had a glass fish tank for hatching monarch butterflies. Every kid got to see the caterpillar form a chrysalis and hatch two weeks later into a grown butterfly.

Nowadays, the monarch butterfly’s annual flight to and from Mexico appears in innumerable documentaries. It’s named one of the world’s “ten great animal migrations.” What you might not know is that the entire migration takes four generations to complete. The female butterfly that flies north from Mexico in spring to mate, lay her eggs, and die, is the great grandmother of the butterfly that makes its way back south in the fall to hibernate. He or she will roost sleeping with millions of its fellow monarchs, and then fly north in the spring to mate and start the cycle all over again.

Fifty years ago, milkweed was common along roads and in fields. It’s the only plant that monarch caterpillars will eat. In my small hometown in the Midwest, we could always find a stand of milkweed – with caterpillars – to bring to class for the annual hatching.

This was not true for my sons. In the manicured subdivision where we live now, anything that vaguely resembles a natural field is sprayed or mowed down to create the appearance of conforming green. Outside subdivisions in rural areas, most farms use herbicides, killing the strips of wildflowers between fields that used to feed and host butterflies in their migrations.

Home Owners Form a Grassroots Rescue Operation

Across the country, many people have joined together to fill the gap, swelling into a grassroots movement to plant Monarch waystations in their own gardens. These small plots and patio pots include nectar flowers for butterflies, and host plants for caterpillars to eat. In an amazing feat of species survival, even a tiny spot of asters can call a monarch down from the sky to feed, and lay their eggs if they are so fortunate to find a milkweed.

As I write this article, I take a break every few hours to watch a baby monarch caterpillar eat milkweed I’ve placed in a jar. By the time this magazine appears, the caterpillar will have made its chrysalis and hatched. And hopefully, I will see it spread its wings and take off on its flight for a long winter’s sleep in Mexico.

Plant a Monarch Waystation This Fall for Next Spring

Nectar Flowers for Adult Butterflies

  • magenta Echinacea
  • purple Liatris
  • gold Black-Eyed Susan
  • pink Joe-Pye Weed
  • yellow Sneezeweed

Host Plants for Monarch Caterpillars

  • Common milkweed
  • Butterfly weed

Online sources for native plants:

www.easywildflowers.com
www.nichegardens.com

 

Monarch caterpillar feeding on a milkweed leaf in this Georgia suburbs garden.

Just hatched: a baby monarch caterpillar feeds on a milkweed leaf in my Atlanta suburban garden.