April is full of promise for gardeners; the days grow longer, the wind hints of spring, and the snow melts. But as we eagerly anticipate outdoor gardening, it’s important to remember that jumping into yard work too early can undermine your success later in the season. That’s because your garden’s ecosystem relies on the early spring “mess” in your yard. In fact, many beneficial insects remain protected by leaves, twigs, and branches through the cold months. These critters are the kinds of friends every gardener should welcome; they include pollinators, such as the native Mason Bee and Spangled Fritillary Butterfly caterpillars, as well as beneficial insects like ground beetles. As temperatures warm up, they become active during parts of some days, but still need shelter on cooler days and nights.
A good rule of thumb is to hold off on your cleanup until temperatures are consistently above 10oC (50oF) for at least 7 consecutive days. Delay cutting back last year’s growth on perennials, cleaning up your leaves, mowing your lawn, and adding mulch to beds. If you absolutely cannot wait to get out there with your clippers, a second-best option is to keep the pieces of cut stem until the weather warms up. You can simply pile this material out of the way in your yard. If you want to take it a step further, you can create DIY insect hotels by tying stems or twigs into small bundles together with jute twine. Hang your hotels in a tree or lean them against a fence.
It is safe to prune trees and shrubs before temperatures rise; just keep an eye out for cocoons and chrysalises. Some butterflies and moths (lepidoptera) spend the winter in the pupate phase attached to last year’s growth. For example, Ottawa residents may find Cecropia Moth cocoons and Black Swallowtail Butterfly chrysalis. If you find one, simply skip that branch or stalk for a later time.
For those who struggle to ignore the leaves, or who have mixed feelings about encouraging insect populations in the yard, try to imagine the leaf litter as a buffet of early food for insect-eating birds. Many of our beloved local birds rely on insects to feed their young, and leaves in your yard can provide prime hunting ground. By taking a relaxed approach to raking, you are supporting an essential base step in local food chains.
While waiting for warmer weather, you can scratch your gardening itch by learning more about ecologically-responsible gardening. Here are a few resources to get you started:
- Ottawa South Eco-Action Network https://ottawasouthecoactionnetwork.ca/
- Wild Pollinator Partners Ontario East – Outaouais: https://wildpollinators-pollinisateurssauvages.ca
- Rebugging the Planet: The Remarkable Things That Insects (and Other Invertebrates) Do by Vicki Hird
- Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard by Douglas W. Tallamy. (Adult and Young Reader’s editions)