yard & garden
One of the prides---and headaches---of suburban life is having a yard. While some are excited to get their hands dirty, others are happy to hire a landscaper. Regardless of who does the work, there are some things we can all do when we start our spring cleaning to protect the important ecosystems that our yards support:
-DO: Wait until temperatures are steadily above 50 degrees so that overwintering insects have time to emerge from the leaves, stems, and soil. These pollinators are essential for supporting flora (flower beds and vegetable gardens), fauna (birds gotta eat!), and overall biodiversity.
DON’T: Disturb these delicate creatures while they are dormant; it can destroy them.
-DO: Once it’s warm, gently rake any stray yard debris into your compost pile, or mow leaves directly into the lawn for added nutrients.
DON’T: Use gas leaf blowers. They are dangerously loud---typical commercial gas-powered models generate sound that can reach up to 110 decibels---and the asthma-inducing and cancer-causing emissions are more polluting in one hour than driving 1,100 miles in a 2017 Toyota Camry. These toxic fumes linger near the ground for up to a week.
-DO: Test your soil, which will tell you what, if any, amendments it requires for optimal health. Check your fertilizer for natural ingredients like plant or animal by-products (i.e., fish, feather, or blood meal), rock powders, and seaweed.
DON’T: Apply pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Many pesticide chemicals are classified by the EPA as carcinogens, and evidence continues to mount about the adverse effects of acute and chronic pesticide exposure in children---and dogs! These chemicals run off our lawns and end up in our waterways, causing toxic algae blooms that kill aquatic life and close down lakes for swimming and water sports.
-DO: Invest in native plants. Native New Jersey perennials include a multitude of plants, including Black-Eyed Susans, Eastern Joe Pyeweed, Wild Geranium, Butterflyweed, and many more.
DON’T: Shop for exotic plants and cultivars. They may offer a nectar source for wildlife, but in many cases their leaves, fruits, pollen, and nectar are not the preferred food of our vital native insects and wildlife. The lack of proper habitat and food sources for native birds and insects is one factor in the decline of many of these species in the United States.
Fall Clean-up: Leave the leaves!
While our impulse is to tidy our yards before snow arrives, trimming and tidying are best left until Spring. Our vital pollinating insects -- which are responsible for pollinating 80% of all flora, which includes the fruits and vegetables we eat -- rely on unkempt yards because they overwinter in leaves and hollow stems. We think of monarchs migrating south to Mexico, but they are in fact in the minority, as most butterflies overwinter as eggs, caterpillars, in chrysalises, or as adults, and they use fallen leaves as shelter and food. The leaf cover also helps to protect overwintering bumblebee queens, who burrow just under the ground’s surface and use the leaves as insulation against the cold. Birds rely on the insects under these leaves for winter meals -- 96% of terrestrial birds live on insects -- as well as on the seedheads of spent flowers. The food chain that supports insects and birds is the same line that leads to the human food supply -- without them, there is no us!
But won’t the leaves kill my lawn? you ask. Good news: a thin layer of leaves can actually be beneficial to your lawn’s health, helping with weed suppression and moisture retention. The same goes for garden beds, where leaves can be used in place of expensive wood mulch, providing plants some protection from the cold and ultimately decomposing into rich soil. With those delicate insects in mind, rake -- don’t blow -- the leaves into desirable areas of your yard, and feel good about the fact that you are contributing to the health of our ecosystem.