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November 1, 2023

Top 5 Ways to Have a Wildlife-Friendly Yard This Fall

A question mark butterfly sits on a rock near two fallen leaves.
A question mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis) rests near some fallen leaves. The fall generation of this species overwinters in the crevices of trees. Photo by Chris F from

Fall is a time of cooler weather, pumpkin spice lattes and show-stopping displays of color-soaked autumn leaves. It is also a time of neighborhoods reverberating with the sounds of lawn mowers and leaf blowers. A time of streets lined with paper bags filled to the brim with leaf “litter” and yard “waste.” But with increasing awareness about declining populations of pollinators, birds, and other wildlife, it is time to rethink fall yard “clean up.” Here are five things you can do this fall that will make your yard more wildlife-friendly this season and throughout the year.

1. Leave the Leaves

While the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is famous for its international migration, many other butterflies found in Illinois do not migrate. So how do such delicate creatures survive the winter? By finding a protected place to ride out the cold and the snow. Your yard can provide a safe place for butterflies, bees, and other invertebrates to hunker down safely until spring. How? Simply leave the leaves!

Instead of bagging up the fallen tree leaves in your yard and sending them off to the landscape recycling center, consider keeping this valuable resource on your property. Fallen leaves provide food and shelter for a diverse number of butterflies, moths, bees, spiders and other beneficial invertebrates. Caterpillars will curl up in the leaves and the cocoons and chrysalises of moths and butterflies blend in with the mass of fallen vegetation. The leaves provide both insulation from the cold as well as hiding spots from predators.

2. Hold on to Hollow Stems

A short, chicken-wrire frame holds back dead stems of Illinois native flowers from a sidewalk. Leaving these stems over the winter can provide habitat for bees and other insects.
Leaving stems of native flowers standing provides places for bees and other insects to overwinter. Photo by Sarah Marjanovic.

Once the beautiful blooms of summer and fall have faded, it can be tempting to join in the neighborhood ritual of “cleaning up” the yard by cutting down the dead stems. But doing so will accidentally kill some of the beneficial pollinators that you’ll need in your yard next spring and summer. Some species of bees such as small carpenter bees and leafcutter bees will overwinter in nests they make in hollow plant stems. Leaving the dead stems standing until springtime will provide snug places for these insects to overwinter.

But what to do about perennials that need to be pruned in the fall or early winter? There are ways to protect the cavity-nesting bees that use those plants. Find an out-of-the-way location in your garage or shed and store the clipped stems over the winter. Place the stems back into the garden next spring after the threat of frost has passed to allow the insects to emerge.

3. Boost Brush and Rock Piles

Leaves and plant stems aren’t the only winter homes used by invertebrates. Brush piles and rock piles provide critical winter habitat for adult butterflies like the mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) as well as for many species of beetles, millipedes, snails and spiders. Instead of removing or burning brush piles this fall, consider adding to them to boost the wildlife diversity in your yard.

Bonus: Brush and rock piles can also serve as shelter for turtles, chipmunks, salamanders and other small wildlife.

4. Save the Seed Heads

An eastern chipmunk sits on a rockpile.
Rock piles provide habitat for larger wildlife as well, like this eastern chipmunk. Photo by Joyce Hofmann.

With the price of commercially grown plants, not to mention the concern over plants treated with neonicotinoids, it is no wonder that many people save seeds from their yards to maintain and expand their flower beds the following year. This is a great practice for making your property more wildlife friendly. Or extend the bounty farther by seed-sharing with friends and neighbors. But don’t harvest all of the seed that is produced. Be sure to leave some of the seed heads standing to provide critical sources of food for birds and small mammals during the winter. Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.), cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Joe-pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) are all bird favorites. As an added perk, the snow-covered seed heads will provide beautiful interest to your winter garden.

5. No Mow Mulch

Leaves that have been shredded by a lawn mower provide organic matter and nutrients that are good for improving the soil (as do leaves that haven’t been mowed). But mower blades can chop up cocoons, caterpillars and other small creatures hiding in the leaves. Instead of mowing, rake or blow fallen leaves to the desired locations around your property. A leaf layer a couple of inches thick around trees, shrubs or in planting beds will best mimic natural ecosystems.

Following these five easy steps this fall will support a diverse number of invertebrates over the winter, producing an abundance of insects and arthropods in the spring. These small creatures in turn will be eaten by bats and by birds, which depend on a bounty of caterpillars and other insects to feed their nestlings.

Being a steward of the land doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming. Sometimes all you need to do to improve wildlife habitat is simply to not interrupt the natural processes.

Laura Kammin is a Natural Resources Specialist with the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center. She formerly held positions at Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, University of Illinois Extension, Prairie Rivers Network and the Illinois Natural History Survey. She received her master’s degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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