Pollinator Pathway Series
Preparing your Garden for Winter
By Sam Nunes, Environmental Educator
So why am I writing about gardening in October? Isn’t October the time to cut down all your garden plants and let them decompose to become new soil for next year’s plants? This has been the common idea for many years, but new knowledge is suggesting that this may have more of a negative impact than a positive one. As it turns out, your beneficial native pollinator plants become beneficial native food and shelter for local species during the winter months.
3 Native species that overwinter in pollinator plants:
1 - Bees
There are many native bee species in North America (honey bees are imports), and many of them are not hive minded. Many solitary bees such as the mason bee choose to overwinter in narrow holes in trees and hollow stems. Local bees are very important for ecosystems and providing habitat for their larvae to survive over winter is a great way to help boost populations!
2 - Butterflies
Of course everyone knows about the famous Monarch Butterfly’s epic migration down south in the fall, but many species of butterfly choose instead to overwinter in the cold northern climate. Some species such as swallowtails overwinter in chrysalises hanging from dead plants, while other species such as the Viceroy can be found as caterpillars under leaf debris. Although butterflies are not as well-known as bees for pollination, they still contribute a fair share!
3 - Ladybugs
As with butterflies, ladybugs are much more than just a pretty face. They overwinter at the base of plants and under rocks and leaves. Come warmer weather, ladybugs fulfill their role in your garden as pest eaters. A single ladybug can eat dozens of small insects such as aphids and their eggs. Multiply that by hundreds or thousands of ladybugs, and you’ve got yourself an effective firewall against garden pests.
What about the Birds?
Of course the increase in the populations of insects in your local pollinator garden will also attract many species of songbirds. In the winter, birds such as dark eyed juncos and titmice eat the seeds leftover in the dead plants. In the spring, nesting species such as chickadees, titmice, and bluebirds rely on the caterpillar and other insect larvae as a protein rich food source for their hatchlings.
So what do I do?
Good question! The answer is nothing! Let your pollinator plants die as the weather gets colder, and then keep the plants there over winter. Once the weather starts warming up and the snow is disappearing, then you can go out and trim back the garden and get it ready for the next season. By then the insects should be able to move on before the new plants start to grow. A 2006 study found that insects provide around $57 billion in ecosystem services each year! Perhaps you can take advantage of their services!
Walliser, Jessica. Six reasons to NOT clean up the garden this fall. n.d. https://savvygardening.com/6-reasons-not-to-clean-up-your-garden-this-fall/
Losey, J., and M. Vaughan. 2006 The economic value of ecological services provided by insects. Bioscience 56: 311-323