The Ecological Benefits of the Not So Perfect Yard 2017

recommendations for sustainable fall landscaping care…

by Joanne Mullowney

We love autumn.  Not only are we leaving the hot, sticky days of summer behind for the cooler, more breathable days of fall, but soon the brown gold from the neighborhood trees will blanket the ground with the last gift of the growing season.  This seasonal leaf drop can recharge your landscape and create habitat for wildlife if you let it.  So don’t treat your leaf litter as trash, but rather as the gift that it truly is to the millions of tiny creatures that are a part of our gardens’ ecosystems.

The Benefits of Leaf Litter

Raking up and disposing of our leaves, chopping down dead flower stalks and grasses all contribute to a manicured appearance which we have been conditioned to think of as the norm.  However, in nature, trees don’t drop their bounty at the curb for pick up.   The benefits of leaf cycling, or hoarding your autumn leaf drop for use in your landscape, are many.

Leaves provide an insulating winter cover in  the garden for plants and those tiny creatures that sustain life in the garden.   Don’t buy expensive mulch.  Mulch with fallen leaves.  Wherever possible, leave them to decompose where they fall in your garden beds.  Or settle the leaves under the branches of your shrubs. Give it a year and your leaf litter will have broken down while providing mulch and increasing the soil’s water retention abilities (moisture retention).

You can also rake out some of the leaves from the beds that are simply too much and might smother tender plants and cause them to rot over the winter. Add them to the compost pile or the leaf pile on the lawn while the rest remain in the beds. Then take your mulching mower and chop them up into small pieces. (Yes, using gas mowers is considered an unsustainable gardening practice, but consider the greater good.)

Rake up most of the chopped leaves and place them back in the garden around shrubs and plants .   Not surprisingly, they are greatly reduced in volume and contribute to a more manicured look. The remainder can stay on your lawn and decompose there. Do this as needed until the end of the season and the leaves will break down over the winter providing your soil with valuable nutrients (soil building) all the while enhancing wildlife habitat.  One incidental benefit is that of reduction of Township resources allotted to fall cleanup, saving taxpayer dollars.

While you might think that this leaves the yard looking a little less than perfect, you are nourishing the landscape and providing valuable resources and habitat for wildlife.

The Benefit of Providing Habitat

This somewhat messy yard contributes yet another important benefit – habitat, not a traditional concern of the average gardener.  Did you know that despite its not so perfect look, leaf litter provides an important foraging space for a wide variety of birds, small mammals and insects?  Also providing benefit is the untrimmed garden where ladybugs and lacewings reside in native grasses and pollinating bees settle in hollow plant stems.  Butterflies and moths winter in chrysalides on the ground and baby spiders hide out amid the decaying plant stems. Birds feed from dried seed heads in winter.

Some wildlife use the leaf litter and other dead vegetation to insulate them from winter’s chill, while others, such as earthworms feed on the litter, breaking it into smaller pieces. Bacteria and fungi in turn convert theses smaller pieces into nutrients which then sustain neighboring plants. They in turn help support biodiversity by becoming food themselves. Toads, beetles, ladybugs and much more also live in your backyard’s leaf litter. Each is an integral part of the food web.

Support Wildlife Thru Your Not So Perfect Yard

We recommend the following practices from the Habitat Network to help you in your quest to provide habitat and reduce your ecological impact.  Adopting good practices in the fall also leaves you well set for spring in the garden.

  • Leave your leaves on the property (Leaves are too valuable a resource to dispose of!)
    Leave them in the garden beds when you can, mow them or compost them.
  • Allow dried flower heads of some of your garden favorites to stay standing in your garden.
    ­The dark stems and flower heads of some of our native flowers look gorgeous against the snow and nothing is more exciting than seeing our small winged friends feasting upon the seed heads.
  • Let your ornamental grasses grow tall and seed.
    Don’t cut down your ornamental grasses. They provide shelter for the insects that pollinate our gardens and feed fledgling birds and other wildlife.  Not to mention that they also look fabulous swaying in the wind.  They make a fabulous addition to the fall (and winter) landscape.
  • Build a brush pile with fallen branches instead of removing them.
    If you build it they will come. This author no sooner established a small brush pile in a back corner in the yard and it was inhabited. 
  • Leave snags on your property as nesting places.
    This one is hard in a small yard.  But you don’t have leave the whole tree.  You can leave a small part as part of the garden ornament and wildlife will take up residence.
  • Forget the chemicals.
    This one is not hard. Just do it! 
  • Don’t be in a rush to begin your garden cleanup in the spring.  Wait until after several 50℉ days to begin, when spring has really arrived, allowing overwintering pollinators to move on first.
    You gave them a home all winter; don’t yank it away from them too soon.

Vanishing Habitat

As habitat for wildlife is decreasing, so too is wildlife, and at an alarming rate.  A recent National Wildlife Federation newsletter states:  More than half the world’s wildlife has vanished since 1970.1  This includes  mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish.  Quite simply, we’re destroying our planet’s ability to support our way of life.

Wildlife needs habitat to survive and we need to do a better job balancing the need to provide habitat for animals’ survival against commercial forces.  Habitat requires food, water and shelter and even a small yard can support birds, butterflies, beneficial insects, and small animals thru proper landscaping and landscaping habits.  They need more than lawn and it is important to provide trees, shrubs, and other plants (particularly native varieties and a topic for another post) that shelter and feed wildlife.

We ask you to adopt a somewhat messy yard and eschew the leaf disposal.  Keep your leaves so that they can decompose naturally in your own yard and support the butterflies and other small insects that live in the leaf litter.  Take the Habitat Network pledge to Garden Messy and Pledge to be  a Lazy Gardener.  Then put your feet up and enjoy the season.

Printable brochure of sustainable fall landscaping tips.

1.  Source:  Living Planet Report 2016 by World Wildlife Fund http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/lpr_living_planet_report_2016.pdf 

(Native) Plants of the Month – March 2017

istock_000045324030_large_monarchby Ann Farnham, LLA

Why do we emphasize using native plants? What are native plants? Are they better than introduced, exotic, non-natives? Why does the Ewing Township Code, Landscaping, require at least 45% native plants in all non-private property planting plans?

A native plant is one which, over countless years, developed with our environment’s soil types, precipitation, temperatures, elevations and exposures. A good definition of a native plant is one that existed, in any specific region, before the European settlement in this country. Our region is the Mid Atlantic Region.

Since that European settlement, hundreds of plant species have been introduced from many parts of the world. They are often very beautiful, sometimes seem to fit a specific need, might grow easily, and show off an owner’s sophistication and botanical interests. Many, however, have turned out to be invasive and some are toxic to people and wildlife.

Native plants, then, are adapted to their particular regions, in our case, the Mid-Atlantic. They are compatible with the physical geography and factors mentioned above. As a result, they require, after establishment, much less maintenance, less water, and do not require chemical applications of fertilizers, pesticides, and soil amendments. Birds, butterflies, beneficial insects, reptiles and mammals rely on their fruit, nuts, nectar, and seeds. Many birds depend upon native plant insects, such as caterpillars. Many alien plants are toxic to these native insects.

Imported exotics interrupt the food web by frequently out-competing the natives for space, exposure and nutrients. They usually do not support the insects upon which our bird population depends. For example, one brood of Chickadees requires 6000 caterpillars as food by the time it attains maturity (birds require the protein and fats from insects in order to mature or to lay eggs; in non-breeding times seeds and fruit do the job). A native oak, for example, can support more than 500 species of caterpillar, whereas a non-native Gingko only supports 5 species. Bird populations are in steep decline, certainly not only the result of habitat loss.

Our penchant for beautiful, green lawns has destroyed functional ecosystems by the use ofchemicals. In the process our waterways, air and health become polluted as well. The lawn mower itself compacts the soil and emits pollution where there used to be meadows, fields and woodlands, now lost to urbanization. We need to develop yards and gardens with friendlier habitats by using native trees, shrubs and flowers, and reducing lawn areas.

Many of our native plants have died or been seriously compromised with introduced pests such as the Emerald Ash Borer (ash trees), the Wooly Adelgid (hemlocks), the Japanese Beetle (almost everything), and fungal diseases brought in by the nursery trade. The attached Native Tree List has several trees, such as the Ash, Eastern Hemlock, American Sycamore and Flowering Dogwood, which now should not be used at all. Some selected, resistant varieties of Flowering Dogwood, however, are available such as the Rutgers-developed Cherokee series.

We want to recommend three books for your further understanding in alleviating the problems above.

  1. Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy;
  2. Native Plants of the Northeast by Donald Leopold;
  3. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants.

In addition, be sure to visit the web sites www.npsnj.org/plant-lists-native/trees_ for_ landscaping and plants.usda.gov.

See also, the Native Plant Society of NJ’s excellent list in Native Trees for Residential Gardeners.


The  Ewing Environmental Commission welcomes suggestions for the Plant of the Month from all Ewing residents.

To calculate the value that trees add to your property, go to tree benefits.com/calculator/

The Ecological Benefits of the Not So Perfect Yard

autumnleavesby Joanne Mullowney

The annual autumn cleanup is almost upon us and we would like to suggest that you channel your inner Environmental Steward by leaf cycling. Hoarding your autumn leaf drop provides numerous benefits for your landscape. It provides raw materials for the compost pile and an insulating winter cover in the garden. It helps with soil building and moisture retention. And, not inconsequentially, it helps save taxpayer dollars by reducing the amount of resources local governments put out for fall cleanup.  While you might think that this leaves the yard looking a little less than perfect, less labor may be required as we strive to become Leaf Litter Bugs.

The somewhat messy yard contributes yet another important benefit – habitat for the wild creatures that share our landscapes. Did you know that despite its not so perfect look, leaf litter provides an important foraging space for a wide variety of birds, small mammals and insects? The untrimmed winter garden invites insects to reside in native grasses or settle in hollow plant stems; while birds feed from dried seed heads.

So how do you balance a desire to have a not-so-messy yard (and not irritate the neighbors) with the needs of the interconnected web of creatures that provide biodiversity in your garden? Well, you don’t have to let your whole garden go wild; you can start out small. Just leave a section or two untrimmed or start in the backyard. Or settle some leaves under the branches of your shrubs.

You might try a combination of methods. Rake out some of the leaves from the beds that are simply too overwhelming onto the lawn. Then take your mulching mower and chop them up into small pieces. (Yes, using gas mowers is considered an unsustainable gardening practice, but consider the greater good.) Rake up the chopped leaves and place them back in the garden around shrubs and plants. Not surprisingly, they are greatly reduced in volume and contribute to a more manicured look. Do this as needed until the end of the season and the leaves will break down over the winter providing your soil with valuable nutrients all the while enhancing habitat.

Set yourself a goal of gardening more sustainably while trying to reach a balance between aesthetics and respecting the natural processes occurring in the landscape. After all, Mother Nature doesn’t have anyone carting out leaves to the curb. Our world desperately needs more environmental stewards, eco-gardeners working in harmony with nature and conserving natural resources. We ask you to become a litter bug; a Leaf Litter Bug, that is.

The Ecological Benefits of the Not So Perfect Yard

autumnleavesby Joanne Mullowney

The annual autumn cleanup is almost upon us and the Ewing Environmental Commission suggests that you channel your inner Environmental Steward by leaf cycling. Hoarding your autumn leaf drop provides numerous benefits for your landscape. It provides raw materials for the compost pile and an insulating winter cover in the garden. It helps with soil building and moisture retention. And, not inconsequentially, it helps save taxpayer dollars by reducing the amount of resources our Township puts out for fall cleanup.  While you might think that this leaves the yard looking a little less than perfect, less labor may be required as we strive to become Leaf Litter Bugs.

The somewhat messy yard contributes yet another important benefit – habitat for the wild creatures that share our landscapes. Did you know that despite its not so perfect look, leaf litter provides an important foraging space for a wide variety of birds, small mammals and insects? The untrimmed winter garden invites insects to reside in native grasses or settle in hollow plant stems; while birds feed from dried seed heads.

So how do you balance a desire to have a not-so-messy yard (and not irritate the neighbors) with the needs of the interconnected web of creatures that provide biodiversity in your garden? Well, you don’t have to let your whole garden go wild; you can start out small. Just leave a section or two untrimmed or start in the backyard. Or settle some leaves under the branches of your shrubs.

I use a combination of methods. I rake out some of the leaves from the beds that are simply too overwhelming onto the lawn. I then take my mulching mower and chop them up into small pieces. (Yes, using gas mowers is considered an unsustainable gardening practice, but consider the greater good.) Rake up the chopped leaves and place them back in the garden around shrubs and plants. Not surprisingly, they are greatly reduced in volume and contribute to a more manicured look. Do this as needed until the end of the season and the leaves will break down over the winter providing your soil with valuable nutrients all the while enhancing habitat.

Set yourself a goal of gardening more sustainably while trying to reach a balance between aesthetics and respecting the natural processes occurring in the landscape. After all, Mother Nature doesn’t have anyone carting out leaves to the curb. Our world desperately needs more environmental stewards, eco-gardeners working in harmony with nature and conserving natural resources. We ask you to become a litter bug; a Leaf Litter Bug, that is.