Habitat Gardening: First Steps in the Spring Garden

Leaving our enclosed winter dwellings and heading out to greet the delicious spring weather is always cause for great excitement, especially among gardeners. Many of us here in the upper midwest are raring to get out there start gardening at the first whiff of spring. Our native plants stood proud through winter and we gladly left our fallen leaves on the ground to encourage biodiversity, wildlife and pollinators. But now that’s all looking a bit crushed… and soaked… The state of things out there does need our attention. Doesn’t it?

Resisting the urge to start cleaning up at the first sign of spring is tough, but that enthusiasm to “get gardening” could wreak havoc upon the invertebrates in your garden which are hibernating, or in diapause, awaiting their time to emerge. If supporting pollinators and biodiversity is your aim, then let any first steps in the spring garden be investigative and thoughtful.

When is the best time to clean-up in the spring garden? Obviously the timing will vary by location, but from the mindset of supporting life in the garden, here are a few things to think about and look for when you have the urge to get out there and get gardening:

• Pollinators don’t necessarily come out on the first warm day. Bumble bees and other ground nesting bees start to emerge when the early flowering trees and shrubs start to bloom, but they still need the warm insulating cover of spent plant material.

• Last year’s leaf litter and plant material will continue to offer protection against spring frost and rain to many inhabitants, whether they have emerged or not.

• Blue-green sweat bees are some of the latest pollinators on the scene – they emerge in May.

• Moths and caterpillars overwinter in the leaf litter, or in chrysalides that still cling to last seasons standing plant material. If you rake and cut down too early, their chance to emerge is likely to be destroyed.

• Use your own life as a guide. Are you certain that you’re finished shoveling snow and icy sidewalks? Is your shovel still at the ready? Still wearing wool socks? Probably too early.

• When night temperatures are in the 50s, it’s a signal for us to begin some our favorite activities, such as planting tomatoes in the garden, or looking for mushrooms. Night temps which are reliably in the 50s are also a good indicator that pollinators will be out and foraging on a regular basis, and that the danger of crazy weather has passed.

• Waiting until the apple trees are finished blooming is another signpost to watch for if you want to insure that you won’t be disrupting the emerging life in your garden.

Every cell in your body might be shouting “Run! Run outside and rejoice in the garden!” (you might even feel like rolling around on the ground – I know I do), but if you want to attract, support and protect biodiversity, look for other ways to spend those early spring weekends. Maybe tackle some other cleaning or building projects around the property, first. Or explore local natural areas and parks for inspiration. Let the critters make their first steps and get the head start that they need, then let your spring gardening begin.

This Polyphemus moth cocoon looks just like a leaf as it hangs from shrub in March.

Luna moth cocoons are exposed as the snow melts. Don’t rake them away!