On Leaving the Leaves

Spring Anemones Emerging through the Leaves

Last November, in my efforts to support pollinators and other insects, I left the leaves on the garden beds. In late fall and throughout winter, maple, oak, and magnolia leaves masked the bare soil of unplanted areas with a colorful, textured blanket that provided insulation and habitat. It’s now almost spring, the leaves are worn, and the blanket has turned an unremarkable brown. As the wind blows, leaves pile up against overwintering perennial stems and bury new growth pushing out from around the base of each plant.

Now the garden feels like a patch of woodland, which is great for critters, but frustrating, because I can’t see what’s going on beneath the leaves. The tiny shoots of amsonia, salvia, baptisia, and coreopsis, in all their variations, are hidden in the leaf litter. Plus it’s messy, a garden unkempt, wild. I want to clean it all up.

But when? If I remove the leaves now, how many insects like the two mourning cloak butterflies that recently danced across the garden will I destroy? I read that I need to wait for a seven-day stretch of 50-degree weather before I can clear the leaves, but I don’t know who came up with this rule. I need to do more research.

Until then, I wander in the garden, impatient, amazed when I push aside the leaves and discover more green and amused by the restraint I have to practice. Leaving the leaves is a good thing to do — I’m all in. But controlling nature by way of a tidy garden is a powerful urge.

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