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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"cleaning up" your yard scares away birds and encourages weeds

     At this time of year, many homeowners clean up withered plants and fallen leaves out of habit. This habit sells a lot of rakes and plastic bags unnecessarily! Years ago I admit I did it too, just because I saw my neighbors doing it.
        Boy was I wrong!  A knowledgeable friend of mine advised me that bare, exposed ground actually encourages the growth of unwanted plants – “weeds”.  This plant growth is nature's way of holding bare soil in place. Dead plant debris, left on the ground, becomes an organic humus, resulting in looser soil and gives your soil an ability to hold more water and nutrients. So your "wanted" plants grow bigger and better. You can rake up the debris and buy humus in bags every year, or let it develop naturally for free. It’s your choice.

Normal plant debris also adds nutrients to the soil as it decomposes. So, again, you can buy fertilizer in bags every year, or add it to your soil naturally. Normal plant debris also acts like a mulch. Since sunlight can’t reach the unwanted weed seeds, weeds don’t grow. Also, any additional seeds (usually blown in by wind, or dropped by birds) have difficulty reaching the soil, so they can’t get a foothold. Water doesn’t evaporate from the soil as fast, either. So your water bill should be lower.
        Please keep in mind that I’m talking about a “normal” amount of plant debris and leaves. If they pile up by an outside wall or on a sidewalk, by all means clean up.   For years, what I’ve done successfully is shred excess plant debris into tiny pieces (with a lawn mower), and put it right back on the landscape.

        An amazing array of birds, butterflies and small animals live in plant debris. Insects do too! Often these ”beneficial” insects control things like borers, aphids, mosquitoes and termites. Insects also serve as food (remember the food chain?) for the aforementioned birds as well as encouraging frequent visits by migrating species. Rake up the plant debris and insects - followed quickly by birds - go elsewhere.

A word of advice:  be sensitive to your neighbors’ preferences. Take some time to explain to them why your landscape is “natural”, not manicured. Even if they don’t agree with you they should know that you have a long-term plan, and your landscape shouldn’t be blamed on laziness or neglect. It’s very ecology-minded too. The National Wildlife Federation certifies “backyard habitats” and supplies a yard sign to help you provide information.
          You may not be comfortable with leaving plant debris on your entire yard. Instead, do a little at a time. This year, for instance just leave one flower bed “messy”. I’ll bet the soil there will be richer, will require less water and your plants will be healthier and bigger next year. Then the following fall “naturalize” a little larger area;  keep taking it one step at a time.

Most visibly, you’ll have fewer unwanted weeds by leaving plant debris (mainly fallen leaves) where it falls. A once-over with a lawn mower shreds debris into small, fast-decomposing pieces. The results certainly justify what appears be laziness.


OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at in Denton.


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