Bees & Butterflies Need Love Too!

This is a guest blog by author Flora Caputo. Her book Bee Native! Flower Power: An Easy Guide to Choosing Native Flowers for your Garden to Help Pollinators is an excellent resource for gardeners interested in learning more about helping pollinators and learning about native plants. You can order a copy HERE.

As spring continues to wake up our gardens and stay at home orders are giving us extra time-we get the itch to start outdoor spring chores early. Gardening is a great way to get fresh air and exercise-while staying away from other humans. And if you’re like me, and you are following the fall philosophy of “less is more” to help biodiversity in your yard, your spring garden needs A LOT of love. Letting the leaves stay and the plants die back was the right thing to do, yet it all looks horrible right now and you are possibly getting raised eyebrows from neighbors. But before you jump into your garden-rake in hand like Xena (garden) warrior princess, take a deep breath and pause. There are some important things to consider with spring clean-up so you don’t thwart all the good work you did helping the bees, butterflies and other animals in the fall.

1: On the next warm day, do a walkabout and observe.

Gardening is considered very labor-intensive. But the often overlooked part of gardening is mindfulness and observation. In a previous post by Bridget Walsh, she advises walking around and observing your garden beds and plants to start garden planning. This is something you should do weekly during the growing season. The walkabout I am suggesting is similar, but pay closer attention to any insect and wildlife activity, and take note. Are there any cocoons or chrysalis on branches or plant matter? Are there bees around, and if so do they find a way to an area of leaves and forage under them? Are there new birds in the area that you should get special feed for? Is there a bird’s nest in a shrub or in an area of the house that you need to be careful around? Leaves, where bees are nesting, should be left alone until a week’s worth of 50˚ days occurs. Same with any dormant moths and butterflies. Observing the life happening in your space will help guide you to where to clean and prune, and where to steer clear until a later day.

2: Oh, the leaves.

I left a lot of leaves on everything. I always do. I like leaves because they keep everything warm, and they slowly decompose into organic matter, feeding the soil. Many insects, bees and butterflies use the leaf matter to overwinter. Ideally, you want to just leave the leaves alone-period. In nature, no one goes around raking the forests to clean them up. Nature has its own way of cleaning and recycling things. But in our tidier, more organized spaces, we have many things to consider, including helping our early summer bloomers. Many spring plants are accustomed to pushing through layers of leaves and debris from the winter-it’s how they naturally have evolved. But early summer bloomers, like alliums, have a tough time punching through a thick layer of leaves. My alliums are usually angry with me by the time I unearth them-looking flat, anemic and sad. They usually perk up if I get to them soon enough. So ideally, you want to know where your plant crowns are and delicately unearth them, and try to leave the rest of the leaves undisturbed until you have a week’s worth of 50˚+ days. After that, most of the overwintering insects have woken up, and you can clean up and mulch the leaf matter from the beds.

If you absolutely want to get your leaf piles out of the beds in early spring when it’s cooler, try to find a corner where you can lay the leaves in a pile undisturbed until warmer days. Perhaps even start a compost pile with them? Just know that you may have sleeping bug-a-boos in those leaves until it warms up, and act accordingly.

3: Aim high when pruning and cutting.

The “leave things alone in the fall” philosophy also means leaving perennials and shrubs to die back in the fall with no cleanup. The seed heads, dead stalks, and dormant branches provide food and shelter throughout the winter. But now it’s a hot mess, and you want to cut things back and tidy up. First, know which flowering shrubs and grasses enjoy a spring pruning, and which don’t. Usually, early summer bloomers on “old wood” are usually pruned after flowering-but not all of them. Do your research and know what to cut. And second, when cutting anything-try to leave 10-12” on the plant. This is to not disturb any nesting insects that are living in the stems or branches. If you can wait until after that warm 50˚ week, then you can cut with the enthusiasm of every hairstylist in the country post-quarantine.

For extra biodiversity credit, take all those twigs and dead stems and tie them in a loose bundle. Hang them on a fence or lay them in a quiet corner of your space and leave them for nesting areas and shelter throughout the growing season. If you can leave the pruned back material somewhere safe and undisturbed, even for a little while. This gives any late residents a chance to wake up and move out.

4: Make peace with flowering weeds-for just a little while.

I can dedicate a whole post about the adverse effects lawns have on the greater ecosystem. But I also know that they are part of the American ethos-and getting the general population to rethink lawns as a landscaping cornerstone is quite a hurdle. And-full transparency- I have a lawn. My husband takes great pride in his green, lush lawn. But the battle against weeds invading green grass is never-ending. There is a lot of debate around weeds and pesticides as it relates to bees, and probably not enough extensive study around the importance of flowering ‘weeds’ such as clover and dandelions to a bee’s diet. Flowering weeds offer some early season nectar to hungry, recently wakened pollinators. The jury is still out on how nutrient-dense these weeds are to pollinators. But one thing we do know is the effect of pesticides on bee colonies-and it isn’t good. If you wish to be a good neighbor-and get rid of the dandelions in your yard-try waiting to use weed killer until late May and early June. Also, mow the flowers first, before using the chemicals. That way it will offset the damage of the pesticide from the flower, to the bee’s system. There are other ways to keep your lawn strong and weed-free. Cutting at a higher mowing height can create a lawn that naturally chokes out weeds, and using grass breeds resistant to pests is a great start!

5: Get crafty while you have the time

Once May hits, the garden moves from crawling to running, and you will be busy-too busy for some fun garden craft projects. Now is a great time to create some things to help the birds, bees, and butterflies that will visit your home. Birds and pollinators need water, so create easy water sources now, to place in your garden in May. On my YouTube channel, I show you how to make a pollinator bath using old plates and rocks. I also show you how to make a birdbath using cement and a large leaf. Birds are starving right now. Between mating, nesting and sometimes, a recent migration-their appetite seems almost insatiable. Create homemade bird feeders with the kids and watch the magic happen right outside of your window. In all these cases, try to use what you have around the house and avoid going to the store. In all these activities, we want you to stay safe and healthy.

Nature need not be something separate from ourselves-set aside in forest preserves and parks that we visit. We can invite it into our own backyards and live seamlessly with it-as it should be. If we all take our own space-big or small-and take small steps to help our struggling pollinators, we can make a positive impact, together!