Wildlife-friendly fall gardens

There are two kinds of Minnesotans: people whose favorite season is autumn, and people who are wrong.

We are now entering the most glorious time of the year, with warm days and cool nights, football, apple orchards, and endless opportunities to wear plaid flannel shirts. In your yard, you may be noticing the changes already. Late blooming flowers such as aster, zigzag goldenrod, and blue-bottle gentian are awash in color, while most of the other flowers are losing their petals. Trees and shrubs are beginning to yellow and there are flashes of scarlet from the top-most, sun-kissed branches of maple trees around town. Every squirrel crossing every street has a walnut in its mouth.

Stink bug on sumac, one of the first plants to change color in the fall.

In the coming weeks, there are several steps you can take to prep your yard and gardens for winter and continue to support pollinators, birds and other wildlife:

  • Leave some for the birds and bees: Instead of cutting down flowers once they are done blooming, leave them standing throughout the winter. You may notice goldfinches and other birds gathering on the seed heads, filling their bellies before a long journey south. In addition, many species of bees and beneficial insects will lay their eggs inside the hollow stems of plants. These eggs will hatch into larva during the spring and then emerge as next year’s bees once temperatures climb above 50° in May. 
  • Skip raking this fall: Instead, mow your yard a few times during the fall to break up leaves so that they can naturally decompose during the winter and provide a natural source of fertilizer for your lawn. If you have very heavy tree-cover, however, you may need to rake to avoid smothering the grass. Allow leaves to gather in woodland and garden areas; they will help to maintain soil moisture during the winter and provide a safe place for salamanders, toads, small mammals, and insects to hibernate.
  • Dispose of yard waste properly: Leaves and yard waste are high in phosphorus, the key nutrient that causes excess algal growth in wetlands, lakes and rivers. NEVER dump yard waste into wetlands, gullies, ditches or buffer areas; doing so is illegal and can cause algal blooms next summer. If you live on a street with curb and gutter, be sure to collect leaves from your street as well to prevent storm drains from clogging and keep phosphorus out of our waterways. Yard waste can be taken to a community compost site, bagged for curbside pick-up, or composted at home if you have enough space.
  • Consider late-fall dormant seeding for bee-lawns, low-mow, and prairies: If you are planning to convert your conventional lawn to bee-lawn or low-mow fescue, or hoping to establish a new prairie, early to mid-November is an ideal time to spread seed. The soil temperature should be cold but not yet frozen – around 40° is ideal. The seeds will remain dormant throughout the winter and then germinate next spring. Seeding in the fall instead of the spring allows your new seeds to better compete against weeds and get started growing as soon as conditions are right in the spring.
Early to mid-November is a good time to spread seed for prairies, bee-lawn, and low-mow turf.

Add a few more native plants to your yard: If you’re looking out into your yard and realizing there isn’t anything left in bloom, consider adding a few late-blooming native plants to ensure a continuous nectar supply for pollinators and better fall color in future years. Some plants to consider include: asters (multiple species), gentians, sneezeweed, brown-eyed Susan, and goldenrods. Native grasses like little bluestem and prairie dropseed are also beautiful in autumn.