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Creature Comfort

As the temperatures drop, people start pulling blankets from their cedar chests, and the trees shed their leaves to dust our lawns with the reds and yellows of autumn. Your favorite bird friends start fattening up and flying south for the winter, and those delicate blossoms you planted last spring are in danger of wilting at the next overnight frost. While autumn is a wonderful season of cinnamon and spice, apple cider and pumpkin patches, even football, and bonfires, it’s also a season of complicated lawn care. We curated some of the best advice to help you keep your lawn healthy during the cold months.

Don’t Stop Be-leafing

If you’re anything like me, this is the time when you grab your trusty rake, snap open a few black contractor bags, and spend the crisp mornings making sure no leaf is left behind. However, experts are saying that aggressive lawn clean up can do damage to precious ecosystems and food webs that live below our feet. Fallen leaves serve as a habitat for critters like salamanders, chipmunks, frogs, and other backyard buddies. Leaves provide these animals with cover to protect them from predators while serving as a valuable resource for food, nests, and a safe place to lay eggs.

Pollinators like moths, butterflies, and ground burrowing bees rely on leaves as insulation for the cold late-autumn and early winter months. In fact, many important insects depend on fallen leaves and removing or destroying their habitat can detrimentally affect your yard in the coming spring months. Earthworms, a vital component of any yard, adore decomposing leaves. However, some folks living in areas that are prone to ticks are likely shuddering at the thought of letting leaves lay where they fall. That’s why we’ve come up with smart yard solutions that will keep your yard healthy and looking great.

If you’re worried about ticks or mold damage, you can always remove leaves from areas around vulnerable trees or parts of the yard you frequent most often. Fruit trees are especially susceptible to mold and fungi that might flourish on fallen leaves. Take the leaves from around the tree trunk and repurpose them as mulch in a flowerbed or garden, or you can mix them in with compost. According to Compost Guide, “The leaves of one large shade tree can be worth as much as $50 of plant food and humus.” (That’s humus, the soil component, not hummus, the delicious chickpea snack.)

Be judicious where you leave your leaves. You can always clear pathways and porches without bagging the whole back yard. Edge mowing is gaining popularity as a balanced way of maintaining a manicured appearance while letting nature do its thing. According to the New York Times, edge mowing is “the practice of mowing a strip of turf adjacent to paths, sidewalks, and roadways, so looser areas are set off inside these groomed swaths.” If you still can’t stand the look of your yard, and your flowerbeds are full of mulched fallen leaves, you can always look for a gardening club or community garden willing to take the leaves of your hands. Then you can bust out those trusty contractor bags and get busy.

Your Yard is Im-peck-able

During the changing seasons, you should expect to see a variety of unfamiliar birds perching on the bare limbs of your favorite trees. Birds travel thousands of miles in search of warmer weather. In fact, sparrows are known to travel up to 2,400 miles in the cold months. That’s almost as far as Los Angeles to Charleston. So don’t be surprised when your feathery friends take flight, and your yard becomes a pit stop for birds passing through. No matter what kind of avian company you keep, there are ways to make your yard a haven for all. 

If you’ve let your leaves lie, then there’s a good chance you’ve already got a pretty happy bird population in your backyard. Fallen leaves trap moisture and attract bugs, thereby providing a consistent food supply for birds like robins, bluebirds, and more. Not only will the visiting birds be a delight to watch from the comfort of your windowsill, but they help keep most lawns thriving through the winter months. As Bird Watcher’s Digest claims, “A healthy lawn is always a birdy lawn.”

Another surefire way to bring all the birds to your yard is by maintaining a constant supply of clean water. “Sometimes water is harder to come by in winter than food,” states Bird Watching. A freshwater supply will actually attract more birds than a full bird feeder. Not all birds eat seeds, but every bird needs access to water. Keep your birdbath from freezing over by adding an agitator to ensure the water is constantly moving. This will also make the water more appealing to the birds. To prevent harmful bacteria from growing in the water, it’s important to refresh your birdbath frequently, even daily. If you notice any mold or algae growing in the basin, be sure to scrub it with a water and vinegar solution.

When inclement weather strikes, birds of all shapes and sizes will be looking for somewhere to weather the storm. Building a roost box or two will help keep some songbirds safe when the skies turn ugly, but many birds prefer a more open shelter. Planting a diverse blend of brush, shrubs, deciduous trees, and evergreens will help keep even the pickiest birds safe in a storm. Perching birds like blue jays automatically grasp branches even when they sleep, and they feel the safest when clasping a healthy branch. Consider keeping your cat inside or at least trying a bell around the cat’s collar. Domestic cats are the #1 threat to birds, so for a bird sanctuary, it’s best to keep your kitty inside.

Although food is still largely plentiful in the fall, it’s the best time to start feeding the birds. Newsday suggests, “Put out feeders with high-fat, high-protein foods that will provide energy for birds as they prepare for their migratory journey of hundreds or even thousands of miles — as well as those from points north that are just passing through.” High protein snacks might draw more than just birds to your yard. If you find your feeder is overrun with squirrels, you can always remember the 5-7-9 rule. Basically, squirrels can only jump 5 feet in the air, 7 feet horizontally, and won’t normally drop more than 9 feet.

We’re All Rooting for You

With cold temperatures approaching, fall is the time to prepare your winter plant plan. Annuals like sunflowers and morning glories probably just won’t make it. That’s why we call them annuals in the first place! Look forward to planting them again in the spring, and now is the perfect time to start collecting seeds so you can start the next generation of sunflowers. When gathering seeds, it’s important to wait for a dry, crisp day. Use sharp, clean scissors to cut pods or deadheads, and place the seeds in a clean paper packet or envelope. If you simply can’t collect dry seeds, you can try to dry them in the oven on a cookie sheet at less than 100˚Fahrenheit. The drier the seed, the longer it should last!  Be sure to label the seeds and store them in a cool, dry place. 

Cuttings are a great way to preserve a plant’s heritage if you are worried a plant won’t make it through winter, and the fall is the best time to take hardwood cuttings. The Empress of Dirt curated a wonderful list of 40 shrubs and vines for hardwood cuttings, including roses, honeysuckle, and jasmine. When collecting cuttings, always use clean shears or scissors and be sure to snip the stalk below the nubs or bumps that the leaves grow from.

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