Connecticut Post (Sunday)

What to clean, leave for nature in your backyard

- Robert Miller Contact Robert Miller at earthmatte­

My yard is a stumble into fall.

I haven’t cleaned up the every-which-way flower beds. There are wild asters and goldenrod in corners where order once ruled.

The two groves of sumac that planted themselves years ago are plotting new colonies. The really bad stuff — oriental bitterswee­t — I don’t want to talk about.

But the flock of white-throated sparrows that scatter when I get up and out are fine with the place, and with the seed heads that litter it. Food’s on for them.

“Nature likes things messy,” said Ken Elkins, community conservati­on manager for Audubon Connecticu­t.

But humans neater than me — of which there are many — don’t.

“There’s a lot of people who like it nice and neat,” said Camilla Worden, a landscape designer in Sherman.

Which is leading to some thinking — what to clean up, what to leave for grub.

Kathleen Nelson, of New Milford, said it’s a matter of the landscape.

“In the wilder parts, I leave everything,” said Nelson, a member of the Mad Gardeners, a volunteer group of horticultu­rists in southern Litchfield County. But with her other garden bed, she is more fastidious, knowing what April will bring if she isn’t.

“Too much slimy stuff,” Nelson said.

But Nelson — a crusader against non-native invasive species — and Worden agree that gradually, people are thinking of their yards as places where native species take pride of place. That can mean lots of seeds, nuts and berries to get the wild things through the winter.

Which also means leaving things a little unkempt.

“There’s a general trend in that direction,” Worden said. “But it’s not at a tipping point yet.’’

“Moving toward native plants is a gradual thing,’’ Nelson said. “I have some lovely non-native plants that have establishe­d themselves and are not taking over and I think ‘You’re OK.’ Others, I’ve removed.”

The general idea is this: All the seeds and berries your yard produces right now are vital to the environmen­t. The flocks of fall migrants moving through the landscape need this food if they are to fatten up for their strenuous journey south to winter quarters.

These migrating species have evolved to get here when there’s plenty to eat.

“It’s an amazing phenomenon,’’ Elkins said. “The viburnum and spicebush have all these berries that are ripening now.”

To help out, Elkins and others say it’s best to leave things as they are — unpretty and scraggly — until spring cleaning.

“Oh God, yes,” said Margaret Robbins, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Brookfield. “People are saying they’re not seeing many birds at their feeders. It’s because there so much natural food out there now.”

Some of this food — seeds and berries alike — will last into winter, feeding the year-rounders.

My yard is an example of planning, serendipit­y and nature taking over.

I planted winterberr­y in my yard because I know in winter, birds chow down on its red fruit. But I also planted a hawthorn tree without thinking of its berries, which I now know robins and cedar waxwings feast on when the time is right.

The staghorn sumac has planted itself. Elkins said its thick clusters of maroon berries harbor overwinter­ing insects. So that the crow I once saw — black crow, red berries, blue winter sky — ripping into them was getting two courses at once.

Elkins said the bark of native trees offers food through winter as well, with insects laying their eggs in the bark and those eggs pupating in time.

“That’s why you see nuthatches and woodpecker­s going up and down trees in the winter,” he said. “They’re feeding on insects.”

There is also a move to get people to not rake their leaves in the fall, because leaf litter promotes insect life, which moves up the food chain.

But there is the matter of aesthetics.

Robbins, of Wild Birds Unlimited, said her front yard gets cleaned, lest her neighbors give her the fish eye.

“But I leave the leaves in my backyard,” she said.

Nelson said the move toward native plantings may be a matter of your own landscape — what you want to keep tidy, what you let grow a little wild.

“It’s making compromise­s,” she said. “But I think we’re coming to appreciate native plants more.”

“People are getting a little bit more aware of the entire ecology of where we live,” Worden said.

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