Fall is not the end of the gardening season but the start of a transformation that will guide us through winter and into spring. Nature is taking a much-needed break to get stronger and be reborn with vibrant energy and color. 

Those who have created wildlife habitat in their yards know that business in the garden will continue as usual, with some exceptions. Local wildlife will stick around, but in a winter mode.

The groundhog is starting its hibernation, overwintering on the fat our vegetable gardens so generously supplied. Birds will come every day to our yards for food, water and shelter, while other beneficial wildlife will be dormant until spring.

Autumn is my favorite season. The air is getting cooler, the moon is spectacular, and the change of colors tells us a story of transition and change. Fall is preparation for a new cycle of life, a kind of respite for nature before we move into winter. 

Plants and trees are going dormant; some birds and the monarch butterflies are migrating south, while many butterfly caterpillars that remain in the region are forming cocoons for the winter. 

The warmth of summer is behind us, but our summer memories remain as we prepare for winter’s cold. There is an analogy for life and death in the seasons as we see cycles of birth, growth, closure and death, repeating over and over again. 

Take the opportunity to appreciate the wonders of fall, to remember the seasons that have come and gone in your life, and prepare yourself for a “rebirth.”

Fall should be a time of reflection about what worked or did not work in the garden and an opportunity to redefine your garden or start a new garden project for the next season. 

It is the best time to plant many perennials, especially deciduous trees and shrubs, and allows you to anticipate the emergence of your new plantings in the next season. As you plan, take time to reflect on nature as a system that provides a sense of structure, interconnectivity, coherence and reliability: a model for life. 

Recognizing that we are an essential component of this structure, let’s work with, not against, nature. A first step is selecting the right plants for the right places.

By selecting the right plant for the right place, you provide ideal growing conditions and several things happen:

  • Plants establish quickly, grow stronger and reproduce.
  • Plants produce healthy root systems and abundant foliage.
  • Plants are stronger and healthier to resist attacks by insects and diseases.

Your yard is unique and even has its own microclimates. The quality of the soil, as well as the natural moisture and the amount of light that your yard receives on a typical day, could be different from your neighbor’s. 

When selecting plants, pay attention not only to shape and color but also to the conditions in your garden, including moisture (wet soil, semidry, or dry) and light (full sun, partial shade or shade).

Make a list of what you like and what you would like to change. View yourself and your family as an essential component of any transformation in your yard, and base your design on what your family likes and needs.  Careful garden planning is the key to success and will save money and time.

Fall cleanup? Leave the leaves!

As other species prepare for winter, gardeners look at their yards and worry about what needs to be done. Before deciding to do a “fall cleanup” or winterize your garden, consider the ecological impact of every action taken in your yard. 

Nothing is better for your garden this time of year than preserving the fallen leaves. Leaves form a natural mulch, fertilizing the soil as they break down.  They are a great source of carbon to balance the nitrogen in your compost pile and improve the quality of your soil by feeding earthworms and beneficial microbes. 

They help sandy soil retain moisture and add organic material to clay soil. Using fallen leaves as mulch also saves you money on weed management. The leaves have the same weed suppression and moisture retention properties as shredded wood mulch – and they are free! Let nature be nature and do its part. 

Concerned that your front yard may look “messy”? Collect leaves from the front and save them in an inconspicuous spot for use as spring mulch in your flower beds or raw material for next season’s compost. In less visible spots, leave the fallen leaves and postpone your cleanup to the spring. 

Excessive leaves can simply be raked gently to the bases of bushes, where they will provide winter insulation and, eventually, organic material for the soil. Think of these leaves as mulch; you can water them with your hose if necessary, so they won’t blow away.

And leaves are not just mulch and compost. Local wildlife depends on what you leave in the yard, so, while saving some leaves for compost, leave as much of your yard as possible in a “natural fall state” as habitat for pollinators and beneficial wildlife.

Leaving dry plant stalks in the flower beds adds winter interest and provides seeds for birds and nesting spots for native bees. Some butterfly species cocoon on dry stems or in fallen leaves over the winter; others overwinter as caterpillars in the leaves or lay their eggs on dry leaves. 

Removing the plants and leaves means killing these overwintering insects. If you find tall stalks unsightly, you can cut them back to about 2 feet high. This will still allow pollinators to build nests inside over the winter or in early spring. 

And don’t throw away the seed heads; tie them in bunches and hang them from your bird feeder or from a low branch of any tree or bush in your yard. Hungry birds will be grateful. 

As you help wildlife through the winter, dream about the emergence in spring of a colorful garden full of life – an oasis for birds and butterflies. Plant the seeds (metaphorically) today and await their rebirth in spring!

Jose German-Gomez is an environmental activist, Essex County certified master gardener and Montclair resident. He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition.