Spring Garden Housekeeping

by Linda Porter
Originally published in The Garden Club of Kentucky Bulletin, March, 2019

It is early Spring and there you are, out in the garden, looking at last year’s growth and leaves covering your precious plant treasures. Time to get in there and cut and rake like crazy – right? Not so fast – you might want to slow down and consider that there are other treasures in all parts of your garden.

GARDEN LITTER: Most of us know better than to aggressively rake garden beds in Spring. Good gardeners carefully remove leaves to avoid breaking off tender new plants. Those sprouts are not the only living thing under your leaves and other garden debris. The leaf litter is a wintering nest for many beneficial adult insects, as well, as eggs and pupae. Some adult butterflies, such as mourning cloak, question marks, and commas hibernate in the leafy beds.
CARE: 1. Wait until temperatures warm to remove leaves from perennial gardens (to at least a steady string of 50 degree days). 2. Leave at least a layer of healthy litter to act as moisture-retaining mulch while adding soil nutrition.

STEMS: Did you know that many species of beneficial insects use hollow stems for their winter retreats? These include lacebugs and pollinating flower flies. My personal favorite stem inhabitants are the tiny solitary bees that lay eggs in the stems in the winter – back-filing with mud or chewed leaves. Their adult offspring dig out in the early Spring and fly off to pollinate your wild flowers, bulbs and ephemerals.
CARE: To help save the stem dwellers you should 1. Avoid cutting down plant stems too early in spring (until temperatures are consistently over 60 degrees). 2. When cutting back, leave at least a foot of hollow stems and let that remain over the growing season for insect cavity dwellings. This also will help support new growth. 3. Another solution is to bundle, tie and hang hollow stems horizontally from trees to serve as homes for native cavity dwelling bees.

SOIL: A variety of other insects overwinter in soil burrows in either adult, egg or pupae form, including lightening bugs, hummingbird clearwing moths and many native bees.
CARE: 1. Keep the soil uncovered and do not over mulch with a thick wood chip layer (or plastic). 2. Wait to mulch until weather warms and soil is drier. 3. Try to maintain some open soil areas in your yard or garden.

SHRUBS AND TREES: As birds move into our shrubs and trees to build nests, other creatures are just now waking up there from a long winter’s sleep. A variety of butterflies and moths overwinter as cocoons and chrysalises suspended on branches.
CARE: Keep a look out for cocoons and chrysalises as you prune.

Leave the occupied branches for a while; and place cut branches in a safe place just in case you miss a few treasures.

Your garden is so much more than flowers. By taking some precautions now, you can help guarantee the safety of all that lives there. Happy Gardening!