This is What Sustainable Looks Like

A lot of time when I lecture, I talk about “leaving the leaves.” That means leaving the leaf litter, without doing anything to it, where it falls, in my garden.

Needless to say, I get a lot of questions, comments, and sometimes remarks about how unattractive it might be. Yes, at this point in the season, it’s mighty unattractive. This is right down in front of my property, where I, and everyone who walks dogs or walks in our neighborhood sees it. Even I avert my eyes sometimes.

What I hope people notice is this sign, which is on the telephone pole just ten feet away. I hope they connect the “backyard wildlife habitat” idea with all these messy stems lying on the ground. I hope that they might remember that the “messy stems” are actually stems of native plants like asters, goldenrod and white snakeroot which feed my pollinators from late June into November.

What I also hope that some of them might know is that the reason I leave the stems on the ground long after most of my other tidy neighbors have cleaned up their gardens is because I hope that any overwintering insects that might be using the hollow stems are hatched out.

I wait to do my garden cleanup until my soil temperature reaches 50 degrees or warmer–something I can easily find out with a soil thermometer (although I know people who make do with old meat thermometers). For those who like more up to date methods, there’s a great web site called Greencast Online which will give you the soil temperature for your zip code if you don’t mind that it’s run by the huge agribusiness Syngrenta.

Why are soil temperatures important? That could be the subject of weeks’ worth of posts. Suffice it to say that at about 50 degrees, beneficial insects begin to become active and the lovely little mason bees that I hope are sheltering in the hollow stems of those goldenrods will hatch out and begin flying.

Similarly, the ground beetles and other overwintering “good” bugs will become active and start moving out from under all that lovely leaf little that I have allowed to lie in my gardens. So if I start working in there, I am not going to disturb them unduly.

Finally I hope this photo addresses the last question that I get a lot about the leaf little which is “how can the plants come up through all that?”

I always say that if my delicate little snowdrops can push up and bloom–as you see that they can and do–so will everything else.

And by mid-June, I assure you, you won’t be able to see a leaf here, or in any of my gardens. They will be a solid walls of green plants!

Please consider some of the sustainable practices I have described. Your insects will thank you!

7 thoughts on “This is What Sustainable Looks Like

  1. Mominthegarden March 27, 2023 / 1:57 pm

    I agree, the benefits are many to leaving the garden ‘unkempt’ overwinter. In Ireland, I tend to clean it up in February, though, as things start to come to life (and our temperatures are much more temperate).

    • gardendaze March 27, 2023 / 2:11 pm

      I follow several British gardening blogs and you’re so right–the temperature in Great Britain and Ireland is generally so much more temperate than where I am. I am definitely envious!

  2. tonytomeo March 27, 2023 / 5:33 pm

    Sustainability was more efficient before it became a fad. Nowadays, it is merely a marketing buzz word, mostly for products that are contrary to it.

    • gardendaze March 27, 2023 / 6:31 pm

      There’s a lot of green washing going on, yes. That doesn’t mean that we have to throw the whole concept out. We can still practice it in our own gardens without all the hype (and with the wrong products)

      • tonytomeo March 27, 2023 / 9:05 pm

        Oh, of course not! My home garden is very sustainable. I grow what I have grown since I was a kid because it has lasted that long. Much of it was very old when I got it. I get flack from so-called ‘landscapers’ who insist that I should try modern cultivars that are marketed as ‘sustainable’, but I know such cultivars will be extinct in a few years. This is why developers of such cultivars no longer send me their samples for trialing.

      • gardendaze March 28, 2023 / 5:03 am

        Doesn’t that absolutely make you insane?! Some of these so-called modern breeders are breeding for replacement, not lifetime enjoyment! Ooh, don’t get me started on that one! Latest and greatest, indeed!

      • tonytomeo March 30, 2023 / 12:10 am

        Oh, I should not have brought that up. I get it because I get so annoyed as well.

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