Maine Home Garden News — October 2020

In This Issue:

October Is the Month to . . .

By Kate Garland, Horticultural Professional, UMaine Extension Penobscot County

  • autumn leaves on the groundLeave the leaves! “One of the most valuable things you can do to support pollinators and other invertebrates is to provide them with the winter cover they need,” says Justin Wheeler for the Xerces Society. Read more in his article below. If it’s tough to fully retire the rake, allow leaves to accumulate in certain areas of the landscape and encourage friends to do the same. Become a #leavetheleaves trendsetter.
  • Contact an arborist to discuss the removal of hazard trees and limbs before the winter storm season begins. The State of Maine arborist program maintains a listing of licensed professionals and offers tips on how to select the right contractor for your project.
  • Sow native plant seeds. Many of our native plant species require a period of cold, moist conditions in order to germinate. Fall sowing mimics natural processes and is a very inexpensive way to add more native plants to your landscape. The Wild Seed project has a nice 6-step process outlined on their website.
  • garlic; photo by Edwin RemsbergPlant garlic. UMaine garlic experts Dave Fuller and Steve Johnson explain the proper timing in Growing Hardneck Garlic in Your Maine Garden. “The goal in the timing of planting is to allow the clove to establish a root system but not to plant so early as to have the top emerge above the soil line where it is prone to winter injury. Plant hardneck garlic cloves in Maine about mid-September to the end of October, north to south.”
  • Start or revamp your compost pile. While it’s best to let as many leaves as possible serve as habitat for overwintering insect populations, using some of those leaves as a foundation for, or supplement to, compost piles also serves as an important way we can have a positive impact on the environment. Leaves are an excellent foundation material for home compost piles.
  • Dig, prep, and store tender bulbs*. Dahlias, cannas, elephant ears, gladiolus, and tuberous begonia all have underground storage structures that can be stored in a cool, dark location for the winter and replanted the following season. Here are some great tips for preparing the plant material and establishing the proper storage conditions.
  • Identify sugar maples for tapping this winter before one of their most helpful identification characteristics (their leaves) disappear. Forest Trees of Maine has a nice tree identification key (PDF) and a detailed section on maple trees (PDF). Once you’ve marked trees with brightly colored flagging, start looking for sugaring supplies and check out our nice collection of “How To” videos to get ready to enjoy nature’s candy.
  • Test your soil. Soil samples can be collected and sent to the lab at any time, but tests taken at the end of the season are especially helpful because some amendments, such as lime, can take some time to react in the soil. Plus, you can purchase what you need now so you’re prepared for next spring! Request a kit.
  • Plant spring-flowering bulbs*. The sight of cheerful crocus, tulips, daffodils, snowdrops, and other early blooms can warm even the coldest Mainer in April and May. Use the “toss” approach for a more natural effect by gently dropping small groups of bulbs from about 2 feet above where you plan to plant and tuck them in exactly where they land.
  • Pre-register to safely dispose of obsolete pesticides by October 9. This free annual program is open to homeowners, family-owned farms, and greenhouses. Collections will occur at four sites: Presque Isle, Bangor, Augusta, and Portland. Drop-ins are not permitted. Collected pesticides are taken to an out-of-state disposal facility licensed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Information to register and fill out your obsolete pesticide inventory form may be found at the Obsolete Pesticide Collection website.

* Some of the plants that are listed as bulbs are technically a corm, rhizome, or tuber.

An Interview with Paul Gaven, Proprietor of The Honey Exchange

Thoughtful interview questions by Jen Lund, Maine State Apiarist, Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, Division of Animal and Plant Health,

Q. Please describe your background (how you got into bees, how many hives do you have, etc.).

A. I came into beekeeping late in life. It wasn’t something I’d ever considered until I met a guy in college whose parents were beekeepers. It sounded like a weird, offbeat hobby I could get behind. In my 40s I finally got a hive of my own after reading a long article about colony collapse and thinking I’d like to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. It turns out I was part of a nationwide trend of people making exactly the same decision. We now look after about 20 hives in total. The Honey Exchange is a hub for the beekeeping community. We teach classes, provide hives, bees, equipment, and year-round support for the beekeepers, including a custom honey extraction service. The other half of the business is one of Portland’s favorite gift shops, where we sell local and artisanal honey, food and drinks made with honey, and beeswax products from candles to hand salves.

Q. What should a person do if they want to start beekeeping?

A. We always recommend people take a class before starting to keep a hive. Classes are generally offered in the winter, and winter is a good time to get hives parts assembled, painted, and to reserve bees for spring. It’s also good to join the county beekeeping club and start working on building your support network among beekeepers. After that, it’s a non-stop learning journey.

Q. How is beekeeping in urban areas different than in more rural areas?

A. The primary difference between urban and rural beekeeping is the concern for neighbors in a more densely populated neighborhood. In the country, they need to worry about bears bothering the hives. In the city, we need to worry about the bees bothering humans.

Q. Can you make honey if you keep your bees in the city?

A. Honey production can often be more prolific in urban environments than in rural ones. In Portland specifically, the city has been planting flowering trees for decades. Just the lindens on Baxter boulevard can provide 30 pounds of honey to our hives in a good year. Also, the “in-between” places in the city are filled with natural forage, from the railroad tracks to the roadside to space under the power lines. The agricultural areas of the country often feature large monoculture farms that provide little forage for bees outside of the few weeks that crop will produce nectar and pollen, if it does at all.

Q. How can someone who keeps honey bees in an urban area be a good neighbor?

A. Good neighborliness is a critical part of successful urban beekeeping. We encourage our students to open lines of communication with neighbors; keeping them informed will solve 90% of the problems that might arise. Choosing the right site on a property is important and not usually difficult. Bees generally fly in a predictable pattern so we can direct the flyway of the beehive away from the neighbors and also provide flyway barriers that force the bees to fly up above everyone’s head. Bees won’t even fly through a chain-link fence so at South Portland high school they have a 10’x10′ fence around the hives and you can stand there and watch them like animals in the zoo. We also do our best to provide an accessible water source so bees don’t end up drinking in a neighbor’s pool or hot tub.

Q. Are the regulations different if you have bees in an urban area vs. a rural area?

A. South Portland has one of the nation’s most exhaustive (some would say absurd) ordinances regarding the keeping of bees. Westbrook has an ordinance that requires beekeepers to notify the town of the location of hives and to follow best management principles. Most towns (Portland among them) defer to the state. Because blueberries are so important to the Maine economy and bees are so important to the blueberry crop, we have a wonderfully robust state apiarist’s department and a remarkable state apiarist with Jennifer Lund. She’s a force of nature unto herself. Registering hives with the state apiarist is not only the law but it can be a huge aid to a beekeeper’s success. Ms. Lund assists with neighbor issues, disease control, education, and promotion of the craft.

Q. Where is the weirdest/most unusual/most unexpected place that bees are kept successfully in or around Portland?

A. Some people think it’s weird that we have an observation hive in the middle of a city gift shop. Others think it’s weird that we have hives in the yard a stone’s throw from Lincoln Middle school. We met a guy in North Deering who had disguised his hive as a compost bin. It was great until his hive cast a swarm of 10,000 bees onto his neighbor’s tree and the jig was up. The most unexpected place where bees can be successful is in the walls of people’s homes. There was a 10-foot-tall hive living between wall studs of the church that was renovated into apartments at Forest Avenue and Clinton Street. We got a call from a woman in North Deering who had called all sorts of contractors to figure out her problem until the boiler guy showed her the problem was not with the boiler but with the honey that was dripping on the boiler from the huge hive that was living in her wall. Fortunately, we know several people who are skilled at removing and relocating feral hives.

bee on wild blueberry blossoms
Photo by Holland Haverkamp, UMaine.

What Is It?

Growth on dwarf Alberta Spruce
Photo by Orlina Boteva.

This vigorous growth observed on a Dwarf Alberta Spruce in Orono is an example of a phenomenon called genetic reversion. Other cultivated landscape plants can express similar reversions, such as variegated maple reverting to green. Learn more from Michigan State University Extension.

Seaweed in the Home Garden

By Liz Stanley, Horticulture Community Education Assistant, UMaine Extension Knox-Lincoln Counties

Seaweed on the shoreA frequent home gardening question here in midcoast Maine is how to use seaweed in the garden. An avid vegetable grower myself, I’m usually more interested in hauling home some seaweed than sitting on the beach in the sun. So here are some simple pointers if you’re near the coast and have access to this wonderfully useful material.

  • Get permission to access the shore, and only take seaweed that has washed up around the high tide line. (Never take plants that are attached and still growing.)
  • Seaweed at the highest part of the shore is usually dry, lightweight, nicely broken down, and adequately rinsed by rains.
  • Bring a manure fork, trugs, and tarps for easy hauling. Be ready for lots of sand fleas in your vehicle!
  • To use nitrogen-rich seaweed in your compost pile, layer it with sources of carbon –leaves, shavings, or straw — allowing for plenty of air space.
  • Seaweed on garlicFor the same reasons, seaweed is an excellent ingredient for sheet mulching or lasagna gardening.
  • Seaweed can be used to mulch garlic after planting, and to cover bare soil before winter.
  • Be aware that it’s crispy when dry, and dangerously slippery when re-hydrated.
  • In spring, incorporate the seaweed into your soil with a tiller, or add it to your compost heap.
  • It can also be used in the fall to mulch perennials, but it’s not very attractive, and messy to handle come spring.
  • There are many seaweed-based fertilizers on the market. Most have low percentages of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (NPK), so may not be considered a “complete fertilizer” for all plants. However, they’re packed with micronutrients that are hard to find elsewhere.
  • Odors associated with seaweed-based fertilizers are usually short-lived, even when used on house plants.

Seaweed is a great way to add organic matter and some nutrients to your soil and to protect it over the winter. And for years to come, you’ll find interesting momentos in your garden: lobster bands, bits of rope, shells, smooth little stones, and for a while, that pleasant smell of the sea.

Ask the Expert!

Q. We live in western Maine and have a good deal of acorn caps left over from the acorns that drop from our oak trees in our front yard. Is it possible that the caps may be of some use possibly in the compost or other uses?

acornsA. This is a good mast year like we had in 2017. The acorns will be well utilized by wildlife as this article from UNH explains.

Acorns and their caps can be raked up and put in your home compost as a source of carbon. Alternate layers of carbon (acorn caps, straw, wood chips, shavings, dried stalks) with sources of nitrogen (kitchen scraps, grass clippings, coffee grounds, etc.) to start the decomposition process. If you’d prefer to chop them up, flail them with a weed-whacker in a large trug. Be sure to wear eye protection and long sleeves when you do this. They can also be piled up and mowed with a mulching mower.

If there are large amounts of whole acorns, they can also be tossed into weakly forested or logged areas, and fed to pigs (but not horses).

And there are a lot of crafty things that can be made with acorns, too.

Q. How late is too late to plant Astilbe? My garden client’s Astilbe order is back-ordered until mid-October.

A. Yes, mid-October is a bit late, but if you’re in central-southern Maine, these options might work:

  • Have the nursery hold the order until spring planting time.
  • Hold the plants in a nursery garden: Spread the pots 6″ apart in a flat protected area and carefully pile generous amounts of bark mulch below and around the group of plants, being sure the crowns are not covered. Water well but don’t keep them wet. After Thanksgiving, cover them lightly with balsam fir boughs to keep the ground frozen and prevent heaving. If the area is not a low spot that collects water, they should be okay in the spring.
  • Plant them at the job site: Prepare the soil now, being sure there’s no added fertilizer in the planting holes. The holes should be wide but not deep. Amend the soil with no more than 25% bagged compost (not composted manure), mixed well into the native soil. Remove the plants from the pot and gently spread the roots into the planting hole with the soil. Be careful they’re not planted too deeply with the crowns too low (or too high). Mulch with 2-3″ of bark mulch, being careful not to cover the crown. Water well but don’t saturate too often. After Thanksgiving, cover the plants lightly with balsam fir boughs to keep the ground frozen and prevent heaving.

We had a lot of calls about dying Astilbe this season. They like cool, moist soil in part shade; the heat and drought was hard on them. Here’s some general information about growing Astilbe in the Cornell Growing Guides.

New grassQ. In March of 2020 we had a service spray pre-emergent on our front lawn, so all summer it was completely bare. On August 10, we tilled the ground and re-seeded with a mixture of grass seeds recommended to be best for Maine. Would you please identify this grass that seems predominantly what is now growing? My concern is that it is crab grass taking over again.

A. I suspect you might be on the right track with your grass identification, but it’s tough to say for sure without seeing the seed heads. It makes sense that you’re noticing a flush of new seedlings after tilling the area because there is likely a collection of seeds resting in your soil seed bank just waiting for the moment when they are exposed to the right conditions to germinate. Encouraging dense, healthy turf is probably the most important step to managing crabgrass. This involves testing your soil to determine what steps might need to be taken to adjust pH or nutrient levels to optimize soil conditions, keeping the mower blade at the highest setting and watering deeply during dry spells, but only once or twice a week.

In small settings, hand pulling before the plants set seed is a good strategy. I wouldn’t recommend applying herbicides on what has emerged this late in the season. Try the preemergent again next spring when the forsythia are blooming and wait until August to apply another round of grass seed. This time, avoid doing a full till of the area. Instead, lightly sprinkle some compost over the area being seeded, sow seed, top with chopped straw and use a roller to ensure good seed to soil contact. Water newly seeded areas deeply 1-2 times a week.

Betty Lynn Carr

By Lisa Colburn, the author of The Maine Garden Journal and writer of the Regional Gardening Guides with a focus on Zone 3 and 4 gardens for the Burpee Seed Company

Betty and her Delphiniums
Betty and her Delphiniums.

When I moved to Orono about twenty years ago, I did what any gardener would do in a new location: I started digging in the dirt, eager to make my mark. There was virtually nothing of value worth saving on this property. I was excited to introduce plants I’d grown to love. The first day I started to tackle the front yard, a friendly neighbor stopped by to welcome me to the neighborhood. When he saw that I was ripping out a blue rug juniper buried in tall grass, he recognized me to be a gardener. “If you want to know anything about gardening, talk to Betty,” he said pointing to the house across the street from mine. “She’s the expert around here.”

Within days, I was greeted by Betty’s big smile and enthusiasm for gardening, in fact, her enthusiasm for life itself. Betty Lynn grew up in southern California and met the love of her life, Ed Carr, a student from Vermont when both attended Michigan State in 1953. Ed was subsequently hired by the University of Maine in Orono and Betty taught at Asa Adams Elementary School. Betty says that in the early years while raising a family, she did very little gardening.

Betty's arrangement
Betty’s arrangement.

Her first forays into gardening focused on flowers that could be dried. She and a few friends sold dried flower arrangements and wreaths at craft shows. In addition to learning how to grow and dry these specialty plants, Betty also knew where to find wild, foraged flowers like tansy that retained their bright colors or winterberries that lent a holiday touch. As time went on, Betty’s garden expanded to include flowers and foliage that held up well in fresh arrangements. Her bold, floral creations embellished the altar of her church in Orono for many years. Numerous brides have held Betty’s bouquets as they walked down the aisle toward an altar adorned with complimentary arrangements. Meanwhile, vases filled with matching posies decorated the tables at their receptions. Betty, an artist at heart, has an eye for design.

DaffodilsMany gardeners in Orono will tell you they got their start in gardening by purchasing plants at the annual Green Thumb sale at The Church of Universal Fellowship held around Mother’s Day. Many of those plants came from Betty’s garden. As soon as the soil could be worked in the spring, a crew of five or six women met in Betty’s garage a few days a week to divide, pot, and price plants. Pretty little pink primroses, tall Solomon’s seal, hostas, reblooming daylilies, and remarkable irises now grace gardens throughout the Orono area. Betty grew rows of a much-coveted heirloom raspberry variety with very large, dark red berries. She generously divided and shared these plants at the sale every spring. All the money made from these plant sales went to her church. Betty’s generosity is well-known. In fact, she thinks nothing of stripping almost every daffodil from her garden each spring to decorate the tables for her church’s Daffodil Luncheon fundraiser.

Betty knows that the secret to success with growing healthy plants starts with good soil. She’s amended her heavy clay soil with leaves for years. Her soil is soft and friable, filled with dark organic matter that holds moisture and nutrients, and light enough to allow aeration. As leaves fall from the big oaks and maples in her front yard, she goes to great lengths to rake and bag them before the wind blows them away. Not content with the amount of leaves she gathers on her own property, Betty drives through the neighborhood to collect leaves others have bagged and left at the curb. She mulches almost all of her ornamental and vegetable garden with leaves. As this organic mulch decomposes throughout the seasons, it’s topped again by more leaves. Her garden rewards her with outstanding growth.

DigitalisI’m so fortunate to live across the street from a passionate gardener. Throughout the growing season, I admire Betty’s gardens from my windows. Waves of gold, yellow, and red daylilies in the front beds draw my eye to tall foxgloves and delphiniums at the rear. In between, Betty’s peonies, some from her mother-in-law, light up an area surrounded by ferny asparagus. Volunteer gloriosa daisies, feverfew, and poppies mingle with bright helenium and fragrant phlox. Along the hedgerow, Solomon’s seal, a signature foliage plant in Betty’s remarkable arrangements, is naturalized. Cactus-flowering zinnias, one of Betty’s favorites because of the interesting texture it adds to arrangements, grows in the vegetable garden next to prize-winning onions and Swiss chard under row covers. 

Trees - Painting by Betty
“Trees” — painting by Betty Carr.

Betty is known for her contemporary, watercolor paintings often inspired by flowers she’s picked from her garden or views out her windows in all seasons. Many who know Betty can boast that they have a Betty Carr painting hanging in their home or they’ve received a hand-painted card from her on special occasions. Her cheery, sunny personality and her positive outlook on life are reflected in her bright paintings.

I’ve often walked out my door and yelled, “Good Morning!” to her across the street and have always been met with a big smile and a similar greeting. We’ve spent many hours in each other’s gardens — never minding the interruption — welcoming the opportunity to chat, to share, to tease. We’ve talked extensively about gardening; Betty loves sharing the beauty of gardening with others. But we’ve also discussed values, life, and love. Betty is a wise woman, a strong woman, and she does not hesitate to seek out new experiences and adventures, always curious about the world around her.

I’m so lucky to live across the street from such an avid and creative gardener. Everyone should be blessed to have a friend like Betty Carr.

It is with sadness that we share that Betty passed away less than two weeks after this article was published. Her friend Lisa was able to share this tribute with her before saying goodbye. We hope her family and friends find peace in the memories they hold.

Did You Know?

Did you know the University of Maine Cooperative Extension can help you decide if farming in Maine is right for you?

Have you had a life-long dream of being a farmer in Maine and wonder if you and your family can make it work? Maybe you grew up on a farm and now want to run your own. Or are you intrigued with the possibilities of life on a farm and looking for an apprenticeship? UMaine Extension has been helping Maine farmers for over 100 years. We can help you, too!

Resources to explore:

young farmer feeds hay to dairy cows

Design Lessons from My Mistakes

By Jean L. Potuchek, Master Gardener Volunteer, Androscoggin County

Gardeners may learn about gardening by reading, by consulting more experienced gardeners, by taking classes, and by visiting gardens. But we all learn by trial and error — in other words, by making mistakes. In ornamental gardening, this is especially true in learning the art of garden design. Here are some principles of garden design I learned by making mistakes:

Repetition Is Good

FlowersAs a novice gardener, I would see a plant I liked at a nursery and buy one. The result was a one-of-this, one-of-that hodge-podge look. I resisted the advice to plant flowers in “drifts” because it seemed so limiting. Eventually, I learned the rule of three: growing most plants in groups of three and repeating the grouping three times in a large flower bed. The plants in a group don’t have to be identical. In the image here, the eye sees a drift of blue flowers, but there are actually four different plants growing together: a grouping of three different varieties of Siberian iris, and a spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana) that blends with the irises because both the structure of the flowers and the foliage are similar.

It’s Not Just About Flowers

FoliageWhen I began gardening, I only paid attention to flowers. It wasn’t until I created a shady flower bed that I learned to pay attention to foliage. Foliage is more important than flowers in creating the look of a flower garden; contrasting and repeated foliage textures give perennial gardens a lush, layered look.

Think Big

Early on, I read that no plant should be more than 3 feet from the edge of the garden so that the gardener could tend the plant without stepping into the bed. I now think this advice was intended for rows in a vegetable garden. When I tried to follow it in my perennial flower beds, the results were very unsatisfactory. The average perennial plant grows to two feet in diameter; you can’t get a lush look with a border that is only three feet deep or even with an island bed that is six feet deep. I now tend to create borders that are 8’-15’ deep.

When my flower beds were shallow, I also chose small plants to fit into them. Deeper flower beds allow me to include some large architectural plants: shrubs or shrub-like perennials that provide structure to the planting.

Gardens Change Through Time

An artist once told me that the challenge of garden design is designing in seven dimensions: three-dimensional space, plus color, texture, time through the seasons, and time through the years. As a novice gardener, I had trouble with that last time dimension. I often put plants too close together, unable to imagine how large they would become. When the garden achieved a look I especially liked, I expected it to stay that way. I didn’t appreciate that some plants would be relatively short-lived or that as the surrounding trees grew, my mostly sunny garden would become partly shady. I had to learn to let go of a rigid design for the garden and embrace the approach of enjoying and editing the changes that occur with time.

(left) newly planted garden with space between plants; (right) mature garden filled in after several seasons

Leave the Leaves!

By Justin Wheeler, October 6, 2017. Reprinted with permission from the Xerces Society blog.

One of the most valuable things you can do to support pollinators and other invertebrates is to provide them with the winter cover they need.

Besides providing the right plants, and protecting your garden from pesticides, one of the next most valuable things you can do to support pollinators and other invertebrates is to provide them with the winter cover they need in the form of fall leaves and standing dead plant material. Frequently, however, this is the hardest pill for gardeners to swallow.

It may be habitual, a matter of social conditioning, or a holdover of outdated gardening practices from yesteryear, but for whatever reason, we just can’t seem to help ourselves from wanting to tidy up the garden at the end of the season: raking, mowing, and blowing away a bit of nature that is essential to the survival of moths, butterflies, snails, spiders, and dozens of arthropods.

That’s why this year — and every year — we are making the case for leaving the leaves and offering input on what to do with them. Read on!

Must Love Leaves

While monarch migration is a well-known phenomenon, it’s not the norm when it comes to butterflies. In fact, the vast majority of butterflies and moths overwinter in the landscape as an egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, or adult. In all but the warmest climates, these butterflies use leaf litter for winter cover. Great spangled fritillary and wooly bear caterpillars tuck themselves into a pile of leaves for protection from cold weather and predators. Red-banded hairstreaks lay their eggs on fallen oak leaves, which become the first food of the caterpillars when they emerge. Luna moths and swallowtail butterflies disguise their cocoons and chrysalis as dried leaves, blending in with the “real” leaves. There are many such examples.

Beyond butterflies, bumble bees also rely on leaf litter for protection. At the end of summer, mated queen bumble bees burrow only an inch or two into the earth to hibernate for winter. An extra thick layer of leaves is welcome protection from the elements. There are so many animals that live in leaves — spiders, snails, worms, beetles, millipedes, mites, and more — that support the chipmunks, turtles, birds, and amphibians that rely on these insects for food.

It’s easy to see how important leaves really are to sustaining the natural web of life.

Leaves and Lawn

Pollinator Habitat sign
This suburban landscape features perennials and ground cover that support wildlife and require no mowing or raking. (Photo: Xerces Society / Matthew Shepherd)

According to a 2005 NASA estimate, there are around 40 million acres of lawn in the continental United States, making turf grass the single largest “crop” we grow. This disproportionate ratio of lawn to garden is the main reason we rake, mow, and blow. To mimic the natural ecosystem an animal needs, a layer of leaves needs to be at least a couple of inches thick. While this would be too much of a good thing for turf grass to handle, research has shown that lawns actually benefit from a thin layer of leaves, and the rest can be piled up around ornamental trees, shrubs, and perennials to no ill effect.

If you must keep your lawn clear of leaves, try opting for raking or using a leaf vacuum to capture whole leaves, rather than shredding them with a mower and make a leaf pile in a corner of your yard. More on that below.

Better still would be to reduce your overall lawn footprint, replacing it instead with wildlife-supporting plantings that can be future repositories for fall leaves.

To Shred or Not to Shred

Many organic gardeners opt for shredding their fall leaves for use in compost piles. While this is certainly a more environmentally friendly practice than bagging leaves and sending them to the landfill, shredded leaves will not provide the same cover as leaving them whole, and you may be destroying eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalis along with the leaves. We suggest that leaves in garden beds and lawn edges be left whole. Where space allows, consider creating a leaf pile and allowing it to break down naturally, or add the leaves gradually to your compost pile over time. Such efforts will keep critters safe and allow you to benefit from the rich garden gift that falls from the trees above.

Free Mulch!

Fallen leaves
Fallen leaves have all the properties and benefits of expensive wood mulch—and they’re free! (Photo: Xerces Society / Justin Wheeler)

Another reason to leave the leaves is for the many benefits they provide to your landscape. Leaves provide valuable organic matter and build up healthy soil. Fallen leaves have the same weed suppression and moisture retention properties of shredded wood mulch — and they’re free! Where mulch is desired as a decorative element, what could be more seasonally appropriate than a pile of brightly-colored fall leaves?

The Bottom Line

You gave them flowers and a place to nest. You tended your garden and avoided pesticides. Don’t carry all of that hard work out to the curb. Simply put, when we treat leaves like trash, we’re tossing out the beautiful moths and butterflies that we’ll surely miss and work so very hard to attract.

While the idea is to “leave the leaves” permanently — for all of the benefits mentioned above — if you do decide you need to clean up the garden and remove the leaves in spring, make sure you wait until late in the season so as not to destroy all the life you’ve worked to protect.

In the past gardeners may have worried that fall leaves, matted down by snow or rain, would have a negative impact on their perennials. In reality, a thick layer of leaves provides additional insulation against bitter cold weather and can protect newly planted perennials when frost-heaves may expose tender roots. Anyone who has spotted fragile spring ephemerals popping up in the woods knows that all but the frailest of plants will burst through the leaf litter in spring without trouble.

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University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Maine Home Garden News is designed to equip home gardeners with practical, timely information.

For more information or questions, contact Kate Garland at or 1.800.287.1485 (in Maine).

Visit our Archives to see past issues.

Maine Home Garden News was created in response to a continued increase in requests for information on gardening and includes timely and seasonal tips, as well as research-based articles on all aspects of gardening. Articles are written by UMaine Extension specialists, educators, and horticulture professionals, as well as Master Gardener Volunteers from around Maine, with Katherine Garland, UMaine Extension Horticulturalist in Penobscot County, serving as editor. Special thanks to our 2020 Master Gardener Volunteer co-editors Naomi Jacobs and Abby Zelz.

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

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