Letter to the editor: Proper autumn garden care can help pollinators

Fall is the time of year we generally begin to put our gardens to bed. I have recently changed my garden practices considerably since learning that our gardens can be important havens for pollinating insects and other wildlife during every season of the year.

Last year at this time, the Pollinator Pathway of Addison County presented an informative webinar, “Fall Gardening for Pollinators” by Emily May, a Pollinator Conservation Specialist with the Xerces Society. Emily explains the importance of using a light touch when preparing your garden for winter. I highly recommend watching the entire webinar at tinyurl.com/fall-pollinator-strategy.

Here are some important takeaways to get you started:

Leave the Leaves. Since many beneficial insects overwinter in the leaf litter, we can manage our leaves by: 

  • Leaving a thin layer of leaves on grassy areas. 
  • Adding layers of leaves under trees, shrubs, and perennials for mulch 
  • Spreading leaves on vegetable and flowerbeds for soil building, and 
  • Avoiding shredding leaves since that kills the overwintering insects. 

Emily suggests gently raking some leaves to another part of your yard where they aren’t in the way. Mowing and bagging leaves is not helpful to the important native insects which overwinter in leaf litter.

Save the Stems. A third of insects overwinter in the stems of perennial plants, so this means it would be helpful if we don’t cut back the stems of perennial flowers such as anise hyssop, purple coneflower, sunflower, goldenrod, aster, sumac, and elderberry. These flowers are highly favored by insects in our area. Here is Emily’s suggested schedule: 

  • Fall and Winter: leave dead flower stalks intact (birds will love the seeds) 
  • Spring: cut back dead flower stalks leaving stem stubble at varying heights of 8”-12” 
  • Summer: new growth hides the stem stubble 
  • Fall: leave new-growth stems standing. 

To prevent diseases, it’s important to cut out plants in the Fall that have fungal infections like powdery mildew and early blight as well as apple drops. Bag and dispose of these diseased plant materials instead of putting them in your compost.

And remember, the new look for gardens is more relaxed, casual, and takes a lot less work. A somewhat messier garden provides habitat for the creatures that need it more than we need a pristine landscape.

Questions or information about future presentations can be directed to [email protected].

Fran Putnam


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