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Celebrate Earth Day With Some Natural Gardening Tips

by on April 23, 2021
AEP Security Technical Specialist Senior Kristi Crissinger is an avid gardener dedicated to using native plants and earth-friendly methods at her home. “Plant native perennials, shrubs, and trees,” she says.  “For every non-native (sometimes invasive) species, there is a native alternative that will benefit your yard, pollinators, and birds.” With permission from AEP leadership, Kristi helped plant a pollinator garden on the patio outside the cafeteria at the Columbus headquarters in 2019. During the first year, Monarch butterflies, caterpillars, and chrysalises (shells holding butterply or moth pupae) were seen there.

With April showers bringing May flowers, many of us plan to clean up our garden and flower beds. But with insect population sustainability in mind, especially pollinators, you may want to wait to remove old plant debris for a few more weeks. You might be disturbing important insects and their habitat.

Because AEP’s footprint is varied, the instructions in this article may not apply to everyone – check your local agricultural extension office for localized information.

What can you do to encourage overwintering insects and figure out when to do spring yard cleanup?

Resist the urge to remove dead stalks and grasses

Wait as long as you can to clean out dead stalks and grasses in the garden; overwintering insects  may be living there. Ideally, home gardeners should wait until it is time to mow regularly, or if the daytime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees Fahrenheit for at least seven consecutive days. It is wise to wait until trees blossom and bees emerge to seek the nectar.

Most native insects may have spent the winter in  pupal or immature forms (butterflies and moths, such as swallowtails, fritillaries, and the Luna moth), cleverly blending in with leaves and dead stalks in the garden and wild areas.

Fireflies and native bees hide in leaf litter or create burrows underground and stay within an inch or two of the surface.

Some bees utilize natural cavities, such as hollow stems from pithy plants and grasses or tunnel into dead wood created by feeding beetles to escape the cold.

Let leaves lie

Many insects live and overwinter in the layers of leaves left behind in the fall. It provides shelter from the cold and a great habitat for their food sources as well. Raking, shredding, and blowing leaves may destroy delicate chrysalides (developing butterfly), as well as the insects themselves. Consider leaving one area of your yard wild, or letting the leaves lie where they fall for the pollinators.

Insects are a food source for birds, particularly those that are feeding their young.  The more insects in your yard, the more birds you will attract and be able to see and enjoy.

Kristi Crissinger does not apply weed killer to her yard because it would also kill the violets, which nourish birds and small mammals. She does not mind the dandilions.

Mulching can be a problem

Many invertebrates are unable to dig through the heavy wood chip mulches. Using leaf mold or compost is one alternative; another would be to mulch the first few feet from the front of your beds, leaving the back of the beds available to nesting bees and insects to make their homes. Never apply mounds of mulch around the base of your trees. This is harmful. Instead, spread it out more thinly at the base of the tree and place more mulch toward the outer edges of the bed. This allows more water to get to the roots of the tree.

If you must clean up

Toss cut perennial and woody plant stems onto the compost pile very, very loosely, or spread them out at the edge of the woods. Many of the insects taking shelter inside the plant stems will still be able to emerge when the time is right. When you cut off the plants, leave about eight inches of stubble behind. These hollow stems will serve as overwintering sites for future generations of insects and the new growth will soon hide them.

Remember to support insects and birds this fall

Consider letting your plants and fallen leaves stand as they are through the winter, instead of cutting back and removing dead material. Not only will leaf litter and dried stems provide habitat for insects, but also dead seed heads can be a food source for overwintering and migrating birds.

Our pollinators live and overwinter in the layers of leaves – which provide shelter from the cold and a great habitat for their food sources. Raking, shredding, and blowing leaves may destroy the delicate chrysalises which contain developing butterflies. If you live in a neighborhood with a culture of precise garden beds, you might consider placing a sign in your flower gardens to help advertise your efforts to save the bees, butterflies and birds.

Information for this article came from a variety of online resources and advice from Kristi Crissinger, an employee and avid native plant gardener

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