blooming perennial and butterfly

Master gardener Lois Miklas says fall is a great time to buy perennial native plants that will attract butterflies.

Sometimes recommendations to gardeners to be more environmentally friendly are rather daunting: Turn lawn into meadow, trade your gas mower for a hand-push mower, use only organic fertilizers and pesticides. These are admirable goals, but it may be more doable to start small.

Below are five simple steps to do your part for the environment, and you may even find them easier, or less expensive, than your current gardening practices.

Delay fall cleanup until spring

Perennials and annuals do not have to be razed to the ground with the first frost. Leaving them standing provides seed heads to feed birds and they can be a huge benefit to native bees, which may overwinter in the stems.

The leaves that collect among the remains of the plants will provide winter cover for many butterflies and moths.

The brown stems and leaves of perennials and grasses are also quite beautiful against the backdrop of winter snow.

Wait to clean up the garden until daytime temperatures are consistently warm in the spring, at least above 50 F during the day.

Try some leaf mulch magic

Even if you let fallen leaves collect in your garden beds, you will undoubtedly have piles to rake up. Instead of putting them on the curb for the leaf collection, consider shredding them.

Simply roll over them with a mulching mower, bag attached. Stockpile them until spring, and then use them as mulch in any part of the garden. As they decompose over the course of the growing season, they will add valuable nutrients and organic materials to the soil.

Let grass clippings lie

You may have heard this before, but it really is best to use a mulching mower and leave grass clippings on your lawn instead of bagging them. Not only will you decrease the amount of waste you produce, but the clippings add nutrients — especially nitrogen —back to the lawn. Clippings should be about one inch in length. If grass is much longer, collecting clippings is a better option.

Do not spray — especially by day

Pesticides (even organic ones) sprayed onto your garden in the daytime can kill beneficial pollinators such as bees and butterflies.

Also, spraying pesticides on a very hot or windy day puts the gardener at risk of inhaling toxic fumes. If you feel that you must use a pesticide, choose one recommended for the pest you are combatting and follow label directions.

Better yet, consider tolerating some damage to your plants by insects.

Choose a native plant

Fall is a great time to find bargain perennials to fill gaps in the garden. When reviewing choices at the local garden center, consider native plants that provide beauty and benefit to garden wildlife.

Readily available native perennials include coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), goldenrod (Solidago), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), blazing star (Liatris spicata) and brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia).

For advice on choosing native plants or answers to gardening questions, please email us at LancasterMG@psu.edu.

Lois Miklas is the coordinator of the Penn State Master Gardener Program in Lancaster County.


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