bumble bee  - by Grey County Master Gardeners

A stroll through my neighborhood in early March reveals two types of gardens. There are those that are thoroughly clipped, snipped, neat and tidy. And then those with fallen stems, piles of leaves, and running a little wild. While we might be inclined to judge those messy gardeners, they are doing a great thing! Traditionally, we have been taught that caring for our gardens meant robust clean-ups in the spring and again in the fall. But just because we are not using that plant material does not mean that other creatures are not using it.

We are facing a global pollinator crisis with up to 1/3 of North America’s native bee species currently threatened with extinction. Some, such as the rusty-patched bumblebee, have seen their population decline by 90% in the last 50 years. The role of pollinators is to move pollen from plant to plant, ensuring fertilization and reproduction of plants year over year. Between 75% and 95% of flowering plants on earth require the services of pollinators to exist and pollinators are worth an estimated 217 billion dollars to the global economy. In Ontario, we have thousands of species who work as pollinators, including bees, flies, butterflies, beetles, wasps, ants, and moths. In the home garden, a lack of pollinators can mean trees or shrubs that do not flower, no seed production for seed-saving, or vegetable gardens that do not produce food.

Most people think of bees as living in hives, up and away from the ground. The truth is that many of our native bee species are solitary and hibernate either in the ground or in the stems of dead plants. Other pollinators such as ladybugs, butterflies, and assassin bugs overwinter under leaves, in mulch, or in the top few inches of soil. If we remove those items too early in the spring, we risk throwing away our pollinators and mulching this early in the season can also block ground-dwelling insects from being able to leave their winter hiding spots.

On a lovely spring day, it can be very tempting to get out and work in the garden. But this is often work that does not need to be done and it can damage the soil, plants, and insects. Walking on wet soil or digging in wet beds can cause compaction and is best left until they dry out. Organic matter can be kept in the garden to improve the soil texture. Leaves, twigs, and conifer needles are useful for feeding our plants and reduce the input of fertilizers or additional organic matter later in the season. If garden material must be moved, do so gently and place it in a safe spot where insects can get out as they warm up. A good rule of thumb is to wait until temperatures are consistently above 10°C before tidying away last year’s growth.

Pollinators are the unsung heroes of our gardens. They go about their work quietly and it is easy to forget that when the flowers stop blooming that they still need somewhere to go. Skipping fall clean-up and delaying and minimizing spring clean-up is not lazy or untidy, but an important way to help preserve biodiversity and to protect the small creatures that not only call your garden home, but work hard to ensure that it blooms year after year.

Join us for a free Eco Responsible Gardener ZOOM Seminar on Sunday, April 11 at 1 pm.
“If Trees Only Could Talk” with Jen Llewellyn.
To register go to greycountymastergardeners.com