How does your garden grow?

Simple steps to boost beauty and sustainability

As the sustainable gardening movement continues to grow, static yards with tightly trimmed turf and knife-edged boxwoods are giving way to wilder spaces where bees thrum, butterflies flutter and insects wriggle beneath a musk-scented carpet of decaying leaves.

Thanks in part to recent environmental initiatives like “No-Mow May,” an ever-increasing segment of the population now recognizes that in terms of the ecosystem, we really do reap what we sow. If you’re not ready for a dramatic landscape overhaul, go slowly. Even small changes in your garden or habits can have a significant positive impact and help bring back bugs and migratory birds.

Spiky blue alpine sea holly attracts useful insects including butterflies and beetles. Credit: Jane Fulton Alt

Leslie Shad, who leads Natural Habitat Evanston, a local environmental organization, explained the forces at work and what gardeners can do to help.

“The problem is that insect populations are tanking and we’re losing too many birds,” said Shad. “The best thing you can do and the easiest thing you can do is leave the leaves. Get them off your grass and put them under your shrubs and trees.” The decaying leaves provide a nutrient-rich environment for insects and a tailor-made food source for the plants around them. To prevent potential trunk rot, Shad recommends leaving a 3-inch gap at the base. 

Amy (Dale) Wilke, owner of Green Edens, an Evanston-based landscaping company, agrees that there is much to be said in favor of fallen leaves. Instead of hauling them away, her team grinds the leaves and spreads the material in clients’ plant beds.

Black-eyed Susans provide contrast in a patch of purple hyssop.
Credit: Jane Fulton Alt

“Leaf mulch is the least expensive mulch,” she said. “It adds organic matter. It improves the soil. It keeps the moisture in the soil and keeps the weeds from coming up as much.” 

Wilke and Shad also advise gardeners to leave spent plant stalks and seed heads in place. “Birds will eat from them,” said Shad. “Little insects live in there.” Wilke noted that there is an esthetic appeal to a less manicured plant.

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