Fall maintenance, should we rake cut and clean up?

One of my favorite comics is Peanuts.  The great Halloween special we all love shows the Peanuts kids running and jumping into piles of leaves, and Linus emerging from the pile…classic!  As children we loved the crunchy sounds the leaves made as we raked them from the lawn, and the fun of hiding amongst the piles, its a great memory to be sure.  I still like walking through leaves in my backyard. 

Do these same crunchy leaves have something our garden wants? Yes, they do!

On my home farm every fall, we spread a great many leaves in our gardens, and mow many leaves with the John Deere to chop the leaves finely.  The trees on our property are mostly maple and birch bearing leaves.   This chopped leaf “mulch” is applied to our gardens, both flower and vegetable and we spread the remaining leaves on our lawns.  Our soil is very sandy, and the leaf mulch adds valuable nutrients to our gardens and makes a huge difference in the health of our gardens and lawns!

Like us, critters love the leaves; in fact many depend on the leaves in our gardens.  A wide variety of inhabitants make leaves their home for the winter, the thick layers of leaves provide shelter from the snow and storms, a cozy place for insects, spiders, salamanders and butterflies such as the Mourning Cloak to hibernate in winter.  For microorganisms and invertebrates leaves are food that they consume and in turn break the leaves down to add to the organic matter in our soil.   

Toads and salamanders make nests in the piles of leaves left in our gardens.  In late September I was filling our birdbaths, including two old garbage can lids turned upside down on our front terrace.  Lifting up the can lid I was amazed to find two bright Blue Spotted salamanders!  

Blue Spotted Salamander

Leaves had piled around the birdbaths, and this site, which is in the sun most of the day, facing south; so on the late September day, the salamanders had found water and heat of the leaves piled on the timbers of the terrace. My presence sent them scattering, but it was an encounter not to be forgotten!

How about the prairie garden?  Conventional garden wisdom and advice steers us towards removing everything and “putting our gardens to bed” for the winter.  I believe our need to cut and remove every stem from the garden stems from our Puritanical need to make things neat, but personally I love to let the spent stalks of the flowers and grasses be in the fall..the ‘mess’ is what makes our prairies and native landscapes a habitat!  The stems and stalks of native wildflowers and grasses provide much needed shelter is valuable food for native songbirds.  Goldfinches, Chickadees & Juncos depend on the seed throughout the long winter.

Birds love native plants

Insects and Butterflies deposit their larvae on flower stalks becoming ‘nurseries’ for the winter. Goldenrods are host to a parasitic fly; the Goldenrod Gall Fly-Eurosta solidaginis that lays its egg in the tissue of the plant in spring.  The egg forms a fly larvae and the gall forms to “host” the larvae for a full year.  The galls remain on the plants all winter long and the fly emerges in spring.  Kirk in our office tells us that he and his children have a tradition of searching for the goldenrod galls in late December, and they collect the fly larvae from the gall and use it for ice fishing, making the fly larvae a tasty treat for pan fishing!  If there is a hole in the gall, then this tells them a Chickadee found the larvae for a yummy burst of protein. http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/goldenrod_gall_fly.htm.

The beauty of the grasses in a winter prairie landscape is worth preserving; the brilliant red of the Little Bluestem and gold-brown stalks of Indiangrass and Prairie Dropseed above the snow is so beautiful.  These grasses are our bird feeders in winter and Goldfinches will strip every single seed from our Big Bluestem.  In my backyard Turkeys will venture right under our picture window to eat the seed of Indiangrass!

Thus ends our case for leaving our gardens untended in the fall…yes, to some it may look a little messy, and yes, we can still rake leaves and cut back and remove specific plants; especially any that may have suffered a disease such as powdery mildew, but I urge you to leave some Purple Coneflower and Black Eyed Susan seed heads for the creatures; the benefit of the seed, food, nest and winter homes we created far outweighs our need to clean up in fall.  After all, fall and winter is a time for resting from our garden labors and exertions.  We can now turn to indoor pleasures; baking pies for Thanksgiving, looking forward to family times together and planning next years garden with the great optimism for a wonderful year to come.

A conversation between God and St Francis….


Pondering Dormancy

Winter is fast approaching, I know this to be true, it was 19 degrees at my house this morning–burrrr!  Time to get the wood stove started!  Are we ready to be Dormant?  When I think of the term dormant, visions of the grey skeletal branches of trees in winter come to mind, the ghostly crooked stalks of this summer’s prairie flowers and grasses beneath grey skies and snowy landscapes during our long Wisconsin winters.

Prairie Nursery, Westfield, WI

Dormancy is defined as “A state of quiescence during the development of many plants characterized by their inability to grow, though continuing their morphological and physiological activities”.  The pause in physical growth patterns, a time of rest after a long season of growth….bears hibernating in caves, latent, sleeping awaiting the emergence of spring.  Yes, this is an apt description of all of us lounging all winter long, the short days and long dark nights, resting yet longing for colorful first of spring flowers and longer days of summer.

Prairie Spiderwort-Tradescantia bracteata

When undertaking a native prairie seeding, typically, spring is thought to be the most traditional time to plant seed. There can be definite advantages to a fall seeding. When we seed in fall, the seeding is dormant, and the seed will remain in the soil all winter long to germinate in spring.  The seed’s exposure to cold and snow (or rain) in winter softens and stratifies the seed. This process works to break down seed germination inhibitors and “tricks” the seed into germinating in spring.  Studies have shown that fall seeding will result in increased germination of most wildflowers.  Warm season grasses may though show a decrease in germination when seeded in the fall.

Fall planting takes advantage of cold, moist winter conditions, breaking seed dormancies and promoting earlier germination and faster seedling establishment the following spring.  This early seedling establishment is especially critical on sand, which heats up and dries out quickly in spring and on clay, which gets rock-hard when it dries out and restricts root development.  Wet clay soils are also difficult to work and plant during moist spring conditions.

Fall Seeding Advantages

  • Seed overwinters as it would in nature and comes up in spring on its own schedule when conditions are right.  This breaks most seed dormancies naturally over winter.
  • In general, flower species exhibit increased spring germination with fall seeding.
  • Recommended for droughty, sandy soils because seed germinates earlier in the season, when moisture levels are optimal, and before summer heat.
  • Recommended for clay and wet soils.  Clay and wet soils are easier to work in the fall than in spring, and seeds will germinate earlier in the season.  Clay soils often remain wet well into spring, and by the time they can safely be worked, the heat and drought of summer are often right around the corner, which can reduce the success of seedling survival.  Fall seeding on clay and wet soils encourages earlier germination and better root development prior to the onset of summer.
  • Fall seedings do not require watering, as the seeding is dormant.

Fall Seeding Disadvantages

  • Warm season grass seed typically exhibits reduced germination.
  • There is no opportunity for early spring weed control by cultivation or Herbiciding.
  • Be careful on erosion prone sites.  Plant erosion prone sites paired with a nurse crop of annual rye.

Fall seeding may in some cases be done as a “no-till” seeding.  This technique works only on sites that have had all weed eliminated by smothering (organic method) or herbicide use. If the result of this process reveals dead vegetation which is very sparse with a good deal of mineral soil present below the dead vegetation, you can seed right into this vegetation.  First cut down any vegetation with a lawnmower and rake it off, the cut vegetation may impede seed to soil contact.  The seed will work its way down into the soil through the freeze and thaw process throughout winter.  This method can only be accomplished in the fall.  This method will not work in spring as the seed will not be worked into the soil without ground freeze and thaw.  It is important to roll the seeded area so the seed is impacted into the soil.

No worries about seed germinating in the fall.  Most native seed requires a soil temperature of 70 degrees to germinate, and in most areas, seeding in early to mid fall germination will not occur.  In our region (Upper Midwest, Northeast,Great Lakes and Lower Midwest/Plains states), the timing of our seeding is from mid September until soil freeze up.  In fact, we can plant on partially frozen soil as long as the seed makes good contact with the soil at the time of planting.

After seeding, we’re done!  No need to water, no need to worry…we just wait (not so patiently) for spring.  For now, find that couch and grab a slice of pizza and your remote…I mean find that pair of skis and break out the hummus and broccoli..spring awaits….the beginning of a new prairie adventure!

One of my favorite poets, Robert Frost has his own words of dormancy….”A Winter Eden”:

A winter garden in an alder swamp,
Where conies now come out to sun and romp,
As near a paradise as it can be
And not melt snow or start a dormant tree…


Prairie, Milwaukee, WI Mid-Summer

Goldenrod! Achoo! Gesundheit! Myth Busting

When I was growing up, after sneezing, my German-American Father would say Gesundheit! (meaning health in German).  I sneeze frequently this time of year, thanks to allergies.  You can ask my co-workers; I have the loudest sneeze in the office (thanks to my vocal training perhaps…)  Needless to say there are many shouts of Gesundheit in our office this time of year!

Goldenrod pollen causes our allergies??

Showy Goldenrod-Solidago speciosa

Many lay the blame for our end of summer allergies on the ubiquitous masses of golden hued Canada goldenrod popping up everywhere in the landscape this time of year.  The clouds of pollen in the air…sort of like “pollen smog”..causing the sneezing, snuffling and runny noses…. must be the fault of the Goldenrod, right?  WRONG!  The Culprit?  Ragweed!

I feel like I need an image of this plant in a striped jumpsuit holding a number…yeah, a “mug shot” of this plant….so here you are..concrete evidence and the culprit is..Ragweed!


There it was, lurking…hardly noticed next to the beautiful bright yellowness of the goldenrod, the typical annual Ragweed popping up in the disturbed soils along the roadway.  This rather nondescript, raggedy looking plant, often, adjacent to their showy Asteracae family cousins.  Ragweed-which is wind pollinated, is happily pouring out the pollen in their quest to pollinate in their brief life in summer.. and when they do…achoo!  Little did we know…(my nose is itching as I type this) that our allergy woes could be blamed on Ragweed. And to think that for many years Goldenrod has taken the fall.

The Truth:

Goldenrod pollen does not travel in the air at all.  Its pollen must travel on the tiny feet of insects and bees.  My stand of Showy Goldenrod was just covered in bumblebees the other day, collecting pollen on their wings and feet in the last September sunshine.  Bees gather up the pollen to fly off to their hives; the pollen does not fly in the air as Ragweed and many plants.

Canada Goldenrod-Solidago canadensis (which we do not sell!!) is a most prolific (and invasive) native plant, that we work hard to eliminate from our prairies and gardens.  There are dozens of well behaved native Goldenrods that we do offer, which provide color well into October, including Ohio Goldenrod-Solidago ohioensis, Showy Goldenrod-Solidago speciosa and Stiff Goldenrod-Solidago rigida that are happy in full sun.  Delicate shade loving specimens including Zig Zag Goldenrod-Solidago flexicaulis, Anise Scented Goldenrod-Solidago odora add a splash of color in a woodland garden.  Goldenrods provide an invaluable shot of late season nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies including:

  • Monarch
  • Clouded sulphur
  • American small copper
  • Gray hairstreak
  • Some butterfly larvae deposited on goldenrod forms a gall that Woodpeckers feast on the insect in the center of the gall providing valuable protein for the birds in winter.

Revelation!  A new light can now be shed on the beauty and value of native well-behaved Goldenrods in our gardens and prairies. We can be grateful that the Goldenrod plants in our gardens are not contributing to our allergies but providing valuable habitat for butterflies, pollinators and birds.  I for one am going to be working on eliminating Ragweed from along the road in front of our farm, and working at planting our No Mow Lawn seed and more native goldenrod.  I can now say Gesundheit to friends that sneeze and then proclaim “plant more goldenrod in good health”!

Plant Your Own Birdseed

As the price of sunflower seed threatens to approach the price of “nyjer” thistle seed, I see more and more empty birdfeeders. I enjoy watching a variety of birds visit our feeders both here at Prairie Nursery and at home, and will continue to pay the price for commercial feed, but appreciate even more the “natural” birdfeeders at both locations. Both native shrubs and perennials alike can be bird favorites, drawing a wide range of species.

Native shrubs that created nesting habitat earlier in the year boast berry crops that provided a food source from mid summer into winter. Robins, Cedar Waxwings and many others compete with jelly and winemakers for Elderberries. Lowbush Blueberry is prized by both birds and humans as well.  Other fine natives such as White Snowberry are best “left for the birds”!

Native perennial flowers and grasses can also provide year round interest, and we advocate leaving them standing through winter. Early season frosts on coneflowers, striking hues as native grasses turn in autumn, fresh snow collecting on stems and leaves all provide stucture and visual appeal.  As our eyes appreciate this, so too do Chickadees, Finches and Cardinals.

Beginning with Prairie Smoke, an early summer Goldfinch favorite, native plants, when left to “go to seed” are a prime food source for birds.  Species such as Blazingstars, Silphiums and Sunflowers are so popular among Finches that they begin to pluck seeds out before they are ready to harvest here at our nursery!  Coneflowers, Bergamot, Dotted Mint, Lavender Hyssop, and many of the native grasses are among other favorites, and often retain some of their seed after the first snows to be enjoyed by Juncos, Tree Sparrows and in larger plantings, Snow Buntings.

These seed source plants provide cover for birds as well, both from the elements and predators- add a few choice selections to your plantings, and leave them standing until spring!