By Virginia A. Smith
RISMEDIA, Oct. 15, 2008-(MCT)-Fall cleanup in the garden is almost a biological imperative.
Each year at this time, we gleefully troop outside with pruners and rakes to buzz-cut the plants and scoop up the leaves. We stuff our handiwork into trash bags, deposit them on the curb, and away they go.
Nice, neat-and absolutely not the case with Cindy Ahern.
Instead of whacking plants and ornamental grasses that have turned brown and gone to seed on her half-acre property, she sings a chorus of “Let It Be.” And instead of tossing all those crispy leaves, she recycles some as “natural mulch” in her garden beds and puts the rest on her compost pile.
“Most of the neighborhood is very manicured, so I need to watch what I do where,” says Ahern, of Huntingdon Valley, Pa., who teaches young children to play a variety of musical instruments, including drums, xylophone, clave and glockenspiel. “I do clean up in the front to a degree, to keep my neighbors happy.”
But the back? “That’s an absolute mess,” she says gleefully, “and it’s supposed to be.”
Ahern’s “mess” is only a mess if you favor sharp rectangular beds lined with assembly-line greenery. Her gardens are wavy, wild and filled mostly with native plants, making up the first residential property in Pennsylvania to be recognized as an official bird habitat with Audubon at Home.
That means it provides food, water, shelter and nesting sites for birds, while attracting and supporting bees, butterflies and other creatures.
Begun in July, the program is Audubon Pennsylvania’s latest effort to promote healthy yards and wildlife-friendly gardens. It already lists 80 homes, schools and parks, covering 600 acres across the state. (The New Jersey Audubon Society has no statewide bird-habitat recognition program, but its Nature Center of Cape May has one for Cape May County.)
To think of a yard or garden as “wildlife-friendly,” we need to be as comfortable with the idea of mess as Ahern clearly is, and so many leaf-blowing homeowners clearly are not.
“We need to get away from the idea that leaf litter is litter, that it has to be cleaned up in the fall because it’s just dirty and doesn’t look good,” says Steven J. Saffier, Audubon at Home coordinator.
Dried leaves are to a garden what mother’s milk is to a baby-about as close to a perfect food as nature ever invented. Dried leaves contain 50% to 80% of the nutrients their trees sucked out of the earth in a season. Return those nutrients to the soil, and you’ll give life to crucial soil-dwelling organisms, promote strong plants and trees next year, and eliminate the need for synthetic fertilizers.
“Leaves really are the vitamins of the forest,” Saffier says. And so much more.
In and around fallen leaves, hermit thrushes, dark-eyed juncos and other birds forage for protein-rich insects and seeds, earthworms dine, and insects and other critters lay eggs.
“It’s habitat,” says Saffier, who nonetheless does not recommend leaving three feet of whole brown leaves on a garden bed. They’ll only get wet and freeze, creating an impenetrable armor that kills everything underneath but worms.
“I don’t think you have to do anything more than a forest would do. Just leave a natural layer of leaves,” Saffier says.
You can also run them over with a mulching lawn mower and spread the crushed bounty around. Or bag them up for collection by municipalities that turn them into compost and mulch for residents.
“It’s fashionable to be green right now and I think that’s fantastic,” says Grace Chapman, landscape arboretum supervisor at Temple Ambler, “but I don’t care why you’re doing it as long as you do it.”
Either way, you’ve helped reduce the eight million tons of leaves that clog landfills each year-and helped create a treasure.
Ahern’s treasure-filled garden was positively screaming with color in mid-July. Although some of the rainbow has browned, the yard is crisscrossed with wands of red, purple, white and coral salvia and fluffed up with zinnias, cosmos, globe amaranth and agastache, also known as hummingbird mint.
She stopped most deadheading-picking off dead blooms to promote reflowering-in August, to allow seed heads to form on things like black-eyed Susans, bee balm and coneflower.
It’s a look, says Chapman, that “more people are starting to appreciate.”
Birds already do. Ahern was delighted one morning last week to find “four or five goldfinches flying out of just one area of my garden.”
Reality check: Some things definitely need yanking this time of year. Sally McCabe, community educator for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, calls them “the three D’s-anything that’s dead, diseased or damaged beyond fixing.”
Tomato plants, for one, are usually history by now. They can be tossed into compost unless, as McCabe puts it, “they’re funky or disease-ridden.” Then they go in the trash.
In McCabe’s veggie patch, it’s hands off anything that looks as if it might still produce. But yellow squash gets tough love.
“Face it,” she says. “Once it gets cold, you’re not going to get any more squash. But you keep holding on because there are little ones on there and you’re hoping they’re going to get big.
“Just stir-fry the little, teeny, baby ones,” McCabe says, “and then get rid of it.”
Frost may get it first. The first frost in the Philadelphia-South Jersey area usually hits between Sept. 30 and Oct. 30.
Till then, Ahern revels in her fall garden, especially the native plants, which feed native wildlife in ways simply not possible with nonnative plants.
“Our whole entire life depends on plants,” she says, “and I leave them up.”
If you’re still leaning toward a fall garden featuring plant beheadings, with leaf-blowing on the side, there’s something else to consider: By taking a pass, you’ll successfully put off till tomorrow what you could have done today.
Lazy gardeners-and birds-vote “Yes!”
Just because Cindy Ahern gardens for wildlife doesn’t mean she lets her yard go completely wild. True, come fall, you won’t find her bagging leaves or whacking perennials, but her native-plant garden takes some planning to create and thought to maintain.
In 1999, Ahern moved to this conventional half-acre property in Huntingdon Valley with her husband, Scott, and son, Eric, now 13. Out front, it had a full lawn and two rows of overgrown yews; out back was a working pool and more lawn.
Since then, the pool has been pitched, a pond has been added, and about half the lawns have been converted to gardens. To make the latest bed in fall 2006, Ahern used a technique called “lasagna gardening.”
To kill the grass where the bed would go, she piled on layers of newspaper, peat moss, compost and cardboard. By the following spring, the deed was done, and the bed was ready for topsoil and compost.
“I did not pull a single blade of grass,” says Ahern, who uses no synthetic chemicals and goes on weed patrol every few weeks, including in fall. “Not a big deal,” she says, although experts inside and outside the native-plant school agree that weeds should be pulled in fall.
If you “are a native-plant gardener, however, you’re in the business of providing food, cover and nesting space to birds, butterflies and other wildlife. “So if you cut everything down as soon as the weather gets cool, you won’t have anything to offer,” Ahern says.
Though the neighbors are wonderfully supportive of her front-yard habitat, Ahern happily makes one concession to suburban convention: She rakes the leaves off what’s left of the lawn-and puts them under her sideyard evergreens.
“If you toss them, you’re throwing away all that nutrition,” she says.
Might not be a problem in a year or two. Like a lot of folks who start down the wildlife-gardening road, Ahern’s picking up steam. Soon, she may be making more of that earth-friendly lasagna.
“I think the grass is eventually going to go,” she says.
© 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.