Your heart's racing, hands shaking... still you reach for the doorknob. The hinge creaks. Cobwebs stretch and snap as a widening crack of light seeps in, crawling along the floor and up the back wall to illuminate something you thought you had long since forgotten, something you wished would just disappear. But there it sits, metallic teeth silently glistening… your leaf rake. Your fate is sealed, denial and avoidance offer respite no more—it's time for fall clean-up.
Nobody likes chores. Spending these last temperate days of the season, nose to the grindstone raking, cutting back, piling and hauling is a nightmare for those of us about to experience the long northern winter. We know this is our last chance to relax in the sunlight, but we don’t give ourselves any time because there is so much to do before winter.
What if we collectively awoke from this fall clean-up fever dream? What would happen?
The big, soft, green wings of a luna moth float to the leaves of a nearby paper birch. She’s had an amazing four days and nights of flight towards light, romance, and love. Now it's time to lay her eggs. A week and a half later, the eggs hatch and out crawl the hungriest little caterpillars. They munch on birch leaves, their bodies morphing and molting five times over the course of the next five weeks until it is time to construct and enter their silken cocoon. Attached to a leaf that will eventually fall with the rest, little lunas transform and dream of spring. Come spring, the adult luna moth emerges and takes flight, eager for the four most amazing days of its entire existence.
Luna moths aren’t alone in this type of life cycle. Most species of moths and butterflies in Minnesota share this life strategy. They set cocoons that overwinter in leaf litter, emerging as adults in spring. When we busy ourselves each fall with raking, hauling, composting, mulching, chopping and removing debris, we’re interrupting these natural processes, destroying moths and butterflies when they are at their most vulnerable stage of development (a nightmarish prospect, if ever there was one).
Mason bees would also like to have a word with us about fall clean-up. Mason bees are lovely, shiny blue, solitary little creatures. Of the over 400 species of bees in MN, these bees in particular have a vested interest in seasonal change. They make their little homes by burrowing inside the stalks of last year’s dead plants, then they close up the entrance to their homes with mud, thus their reputation as masons. Like little bee hotels the stems and stalks of last year’s plants can play host to these potent pollinators of apples, blueberries, cherries, raspberries and roses. On behalf of mason bees everywhere, cut out the cut-backs, cast away the clippers and set aside the shears. This autumn, let the plants stand, and leave them up all spring and summer, too. All we are saying is give bees a chance.
Don’t forget the fungi this fall. Soil fungi and bacteria work together to build soil structure. Every spring and fall beneficial fungi and bacteria rely on leaf litter as a primary source of food. One of the basic rules of soil health is to keep the ground covered. When we keep the ground covered with leaves, mulch, and plants we’re essentially farming fungi and bacteria to aid in the health of our landscapes. Leaves make perfect, free, abundantly available mulch each fall.
Gardens, shrubs and trees love a layer of leaves. Lawns do not. Lawns are smothered if left under a deep layer of leaf litter. Of course, if mayhem is on your mind this Halloween season, there is no killing quite so fulfilling as laying your lawn to its final rest. Using leaves as a deep layer of mulch on top of the lawn is a handy strategy for transitioning portions of your lawn into garden. Layer the leaves 12-36” deep and let them sit all fall, winter and early spring on top of any lawn you’re aiming to transition to garden. In spring, add compost and manure and fill the space with plants.
I sweep leaves off walkways and the patio so they won’t get stuck in the snowblower this winter. I don’t have a lot of hostas in my home landscape, but if I did, I’d cut them back and add them to the compost pile because they turn into pure mush by spring. Everything else stays. I don’t rake, I don’t cut back, I don’t pile, haul or fuss. I’m a low-maintenance landscaper and the birds, bugs, bees and butterflies fill our landscape every spring and summer.
The Xerxes Society asks us to “leave the leaves and save the stalks” to keep pollinators safe this season. Let’s use their gentle nudge to awaken from the nightmare of fall clean-ups. The less we clean up in our landscapes, the more room nature has to grow. So give yourself and mother nature a break this fall—set down the rake, pick up a book and a glass of cider and enjoy the beauty of the season.
Owner of Minnehaha Falls Landscaping, Russ Henry has guided and performed organic transition in hundreds of home landscapes and several schools, parks, condos and office landscapes. His practices are rooted in healthy soil, growing abundant and healthy landscapes without using any synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.
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