As autumn turns to winter, you might be thinking that it’s high time to finish getting your yard ready for snow. If you’ve been putting off raking up and bagging all of the fall leaves that have accumulated under your trees, you are in luck! Rather than hurrying to clear these leaves out, it is beneficial for both wildlife and your lawn to leave the majority of them in place. According to the National Wildlife Federation and the Xerces Society, there are many nature-friendly reasons to leave the leaves in your yard alone.
There are lots of organisms that benefit from leaf litter in urban and suburban settings. Many species of butterflies, moths and bumble bees overwinter in piles of leaves, and other small mammals and reptiles benefit from this shelter as well. Leaf litter is also a source of free mulch! You can gently pile it around trees, shrubs and other plants to insulate them from cold temperatures and improve soil quality. A light layer of leaves over your turf grass can help reduce your need for fertilizer or other inputs next season, resulting in a naturally healthier lawn (make sure it’s a thin layer though, too much coverage can kill your grass). When the snow melts come spring, you can use piles of partially decomposed leaves as fertilizer for garden beds. Just make sure not to disturb the piles until later in the spring so that all of the critters who have benefited from them have time to move out! #leavetheleaves
Late September is the perfect time to plant bulbs for early spring blooms. Bulbs (a term that generally also includes corms, tubers and rhizomes) should be planted before the first hard freeze of the season in well draining soil. Check out the CSU Extension Fall-Planted Bulbs and Corms fact sheet for more information on how and when to plant.
While many of the bulbs available to gardeners are non-native, there are quite a few species of plants in the Iris and Lily families that are native to the Rocky Mountain region. There are about thirty species of irises native to North America, all of which are beardless varieties as opposed to the bigger and more commonly seen bearded iris. Native varieties such as Iris missouriensis , or mountain iris, and Erythronium grandiflorum, or snow lily, can be found in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Even non-native bulbs in these plant families can provide important resources for our native wildlife. Early spring bloomers are especially important because they provide nectar and pollen to pollinators before many of their other food sources are available. Crocuses, hyacinths, fritillaria and kniphofia (or torch lily) are all beneficial for our local bees and other pollinators.
After a few months of growth, the perennials we planted back in May have taken off! The hyssop, yarrow, blanket flower and penstemon have been blooming nearly all summer and many of them have more than quadrupled in size. Hummingbirds, butterflies and several species of bees have been regular visitors all season.
Perennials 3 months after planting
Hummingbird visiting Hyssop
As a reminder, below is a photo of what the space looked like right before planting as well as a shot of a newly planted 4 inch tall yarrow plant.
Before planting in May
Newly planted Yarrow
The perennials in the above picture as well as the bed shown below are now watered by drip line, and another layer of mulch is currently being added. Once the flowers fade and the leaves begin to die back we will do a bit of pruning, though I like to leave some dried flower stalks and seed heads for winter interest and texture. In another area of the yard we spread a Rocky Mountain native wildflower seed mix that has also been very successful. The annual seeds sprouted this season, and the perennial ones will likely come up next year or the year after.
Did you know that June is national pollinator month? In Colorado alone there are over 950 species of bees and 250 types of butterflies, but pollinator populations across the globe are declining. With just a few days left to celebrate here are tips on creating pollinator friendly habitats that last year-round:
- plant native flowers in your yard – look for a seed mix at your local garden center
- make seed bombs with native seeds, like wild sunflower, and throw them into empty lots or barren stretches along roads
- avoid using chemical pesticides and herbicides (neonicitinoids and glyphosates) that may harm friendly insects, birds and more
- provide shelter and food for pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and bats – make a native bee hotel, hummingbird feeder, or butterfly puddler
- visit the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife site for more inspiration!
If you enjoy having flowering plants and trees or eating fruits, veggies and honey, go thank a pollinator!
For Mother’s Day we ordered a few plant packages from High Country Gardens and the whole family has been busy prepping garden beds and getting the new perennials planted. The plants arrived in various boxes which we sorted through based on where we wanted them – High Country Gardens also sends layout options with planting maps and info on each plant to help you select the best location for them in your yard. We started by amending the soil in a few areas and building up beds, adding a mix of top soil and organic compost. Then we laid out the plants, making adjustments and swapping them around until each one was in the perfect spot. After digging a hole for each plant we would add a few handfuls of compost and a spoonful of re-mineralizing plant booster, then break up the roots of the plant a bit and secure it in its new home. Before giving them all a good soak we added a layer of bark and wood mulch to retain moisture and reduce weeds.
The plans that High Country sent are easily adaptable to various yard areas of all shapes and sizes – we chose to follow our own design and added plants into existing garden beds. Many of the perennials and shrubs will grow a lot in the next few seasons so the beds may feel a bit empty at first. We bought and spread a wildflower seed mix in some of the bare areas between plants. Here’s a list of some of the plant collections we put in:
- “Some Like it Hot” collection: Salvia May Night (May Night Meadow Sage), Penstemon pinifolius (Pineleaf Penstemon) and Achillea filipendulina Coronation Gold (Coronation Gold Yarrow)
- Hummingbird Attracting Collection for the West: Penstemon davidsonii, Agastache cana Rosita or Zauschneria canum v. latifolium Northfork Coral, Agastache rupestris, Penstemon mexicali Red Rocks
- Drought Resistant Collection: Agastache rupestris, Stachys Maxima, Hidcote Blue Lavender, Artemisia Powis Castle, Helichrysum tianshanicum
Check back later in the summer for updates and photos of the new plants!
Spring has sprung and if you’re ready to add some new native or xeric plants to your yard – or maybe grab a last minute perennial present for mom – look no further than Spring Plant Sale at the Denver Botanic Gardens! Admission to the gardens is free on Friday the 12th and Saturday the 13th, BYOW – bring your own wagon. New this year there will be water symbol stickers on the drought tolerant plants, making it easy to select the perfect array of water smart varieties. Horticulture staff and knowledgeable volunteers will be on hand to answer all your gardening questions.
Flowering ice plant ground cover helping out honey bees
If you live in an apartment or townhouse it may not seem like you have the space or resources to become a backyard habitat steward. Maybe you do have a yard or green space nearby, but the landscaping decisions are made by your landlord or the complex owners, etc. There are several space saving solutions you can implement in order to grow xeriscape and native plants around your home!
The hanging garden pictured here was planted by elementary students during a camp I taught over spring break. I purchased a hanging shoe organizer from Target (here’s an even fancier bamboo one for under $19) and we filled the pockets with potting soil mix and herb seedlings. This project could easily be adapted with native grass or wildflower seeds (pollinators will thank you!), and can hang on a balcony or fence. You can trim off layers of pockets to best fit your space, or purchase a different sized shoe organizer. Make sure that it is canvas or a similar fabric material so that the soil can drain.
If you have space on a small front step or patio, pots and container gardens are a great option. Plant Select has a petites collection of water smart plants that are small in size and would be perfect for containers. Many of these tiny plants are used in rock garden designs at the Denver Botanic Gardens, such as Fire Spinner® ice plant, Silverton® blue mat penstemon, and Blue Jazz® pinyon pine, a dwarf conifer.
So you’re ready to transform your yard into a water-smart, native plant paradise, but don’t know where to start? Here are some tips and steps to take:
- Measure the yard area you want to transform – this will help you decide how many plants/what size plants to get.
- Check your USDA zone (I’m in zone 5) and consider doing a soil test. Local garden stores or nurseries sell soil test kits and some even come out and do the test for you.
- Prep and amend your soil. Clear away any undesired plant material and add compost or other amendments based on your soil test results.
- Select or create a plant design (see pics and links below for ideas). Too overwhelming or expensive? You can also start small and scarce in the spring, and add a few more plants every month or so. If you consistently add plants that are in bloom throughout the growing season, you’re guaranteed to have a colorful yard all year!
- Buy or order your plants – planting trees, shrubs and perennials in the spring after the last hard freeze date is a safe bet, but others can be added throughout the year. Bulbs should be planted in the fall.
- Plant! Get some dirt under your nails and then sit back and enjoy your plants all summer. Perennials may take a season or two to fill out, but are worth the wait!
The Center for Resource Conservation’s Garden in a Box program is a wonderful tool for garden designs; you can order a set of hand-picked plants that come with suggested layouts and planting tips. Choose a themed native or veggie garden like “Xeric Greatest Hits,” “Butterfly Dream” or “Spaghetti Dinner” then select a pick-up site and get planting!
Plant Select’s website offers free downloadable garden designs from award winning horticulturalists, and they recommend local retailers for plants as well as landscape professionals. Implement a design as is, adapt them to fit your space, or use them as a template to create a custom garden bed.
Image from plantselect.org
Image from plantselect.org
(of an environment or habitat) containing little moisture; very dry.
Xeriscape is a term used to describe landscape designs that utilize certain materials and plants in order to reduce the amount of water needed (Lyons 2016). Xerophytes are plants that require very little water to survive – they are adapted to arid climates and can tolerate long periods of drought (Ozkur et al. 2009). Many plants native to the Colorado prairie are naturally xerophytes; they are often perennial plants with lots of helpful adaptations, like deep root systems, to help them thrive on just a few inches of rain. Filling your yard with native xerophytes also helps out our native insects and animals!
Butterfield sculpture in the grasslands at Denver Botanic Gardens
Lots of suburban landscapes have started to integrate xeric practices in order to save water, which is an awesome trend. However, PlantTalk reports that the use of rocks, bare mulch and other surfaces has become a popular method, and one I like to refer to as Zeroscape. While saving water is great, rocks, bricks and concrete landscapes offer zero resources for wildlife. Rocks and similar surfaces also give off significantly more heat than plants, causing any retained moisture to evaporate even faster (Lyons 2016).
Using water smart plants not only saves water, but also provides rich habitat for native birds, pollinators, decomposers and more! Plus, having deep-rooted plants in the ground helps keep your soil healthy. Check out Plant Select’s New Plant Guide to learn more about plants they recommend. Here’s one to get you started: SONORAN SUNSET® hyssop is a beautiful flowering perennial, native and great for pollinators.
Lyons, L. (2016). How Surface Properties Partition Isolation Differently (Xeriscape vs. Turf). Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/.
Ozkur, O., Ozdemir, F., Bor, M., & Turkan, I. (2009). Physiochemical and antioxidant responses of the perennial xerophyte Capparis ovata Desf. to drought. Environmental and experimental botany, 66(3), 487-492.
Have you been creating a beautiful backyard habitat? Or is your yard in serious need of some habitat inspiration? Either way, I’d like to see pictures of your yards!
This photo challenge is also a contest, and the winners will receive a packet of wildflower seeds! I will select one habitat hero winner, and one “most room for improvement” winner, the funnier the caption the better. I will also respond to those in need of help with some advice on where to start your landscape transformation!
Send in your photos via the comments below, submit in a contact form, or upload them to Instagram or Facebook using tags #backyardhabitathero or #backyardhabitathelp.