Stop! In the Name of Ladybugs

Don't forget about the wee creatures in our gardens. They need homes too!

(Originally published via SLIV’s blog)

Ah, fall. What a time of change! As a nature-centred person, fall is one of my busiest times. From seed saving to harvesting and preserving all of this bounty in the hopes that it will last me till late spring next year, there is always something to do.

Fall conjures up to many the image of the big leaf pile in the backyard. As our friends the trees drop all their leaves, we gather them all from our garden beds and lawns, pack them all into bins, bags, compost piles and take them somewhere else other than where they fall.

What I want to say about this is… stop, in the name of ladybugs! Like the song, right? Before you pick up that rake, I want to bend your ear with a little tidbit about the massive importance of all those leaves and other fallen debris that are often stripped from every landscape in our modern industrial world.

It starts with a little bit of a soil structure and health lesson, which is related to my previous post about weeds. I spoke about how nature abhors empty or blank soil, especially unprotected soil, and often uses Band-Aids such as first stage succession plants to keep things covered and in place. Leaves are one of those Band-Aids. In fact, that’s just one of the many wonderful things that they do.

In the conventional Landscaping industry a lot of effort, time, and money is spent on practices such as importing fertilizers and turning the soil. In fact, one up-and-coming fertilizer that I heard about in my classes was leaf mold. Leaf mold is composted leaves which are collected from consumers, composted and then sold back at a very premium price.

Why is this composted leaf mold such a fantastic fertilizer? Well, it’s all about soil health cycles. As a tree or shrub spreads its roots (and they go much farther than most people think!) they pull up minerals, nitrogen, and other micro-nutrients from the surrounding soil to build their structures, ie bark, branches, and yes, its leaves.

While during the growing season a plant’s leaves are a part of its fascinating respiratory system, during winter it is necessary to withdraw resources back into deep tissues and its roots to protect itself from harsh and cold weather. And then, due to some deep freezes, high snow or rain-falls, it is necessary to protect its roots from damage as well, as they are still active during the winter! So, all deciduous plants drop their leaves to create that protective layer over their roots. Along with all their leaves, most plants drop diseased, dead and ailing limbs and other tissues.

Trees are not the only organisms to benefit from this fallen leaf and debris cover. Multitudes of small to microscopic organisms (yes, including ladybugs!) overwinter under trees thanks to that thick natural mulch layer. And in addition to that, in order to recycle this highly nutrient-rich but seemingly discarded leaf and woody matter, plants have cultivated relationships with many of those little organisms. These creatures, which can include small rodents, fungi, beetles, and worms, consume, break down and excrete all this organic matter, which is then consumed by smaller secondary decomposers, broken down further and excreted again and again until all that plant matter has become those base fertiliser elements and rich soil humus again.

There is also the added benefit of the movement of these organisms, leading them to take pre and post consumption material into the deeper soil levels, more effectively doing what we try to laboriously accomplish by “turning the soil” or tilling. Manually and repeatedly turning or disturbing the soil in such a manner actually causes a loss of organic matter, releases carbon into the atmosphere and utterly destroys the carefully created soil structure, often creating more of the compaction that it was erroneously intended to repair.

After learning a little about the soil cycle, if, as humans like to, we think about this in economic terms, this is FREE fertiliser and labour! Those wee little organisms have provided a service that we often pay dearly for in the form of industrially produced fertilisers, which can be very destructive in their making and transportation.

Another aspect to think about is when you want to attract “beneficial” organisms such as ladybugs, butterflies, and predatory wasps to our gardens, we need to think about making homes for them as well!! Why are we buying ladybugs every year to take care of aphids, when we can encourage them to simply stay, breed and live happily in our gardens. This also encourages those little creatures to adapt to our local bio-region and become stronger, fiercer and more able to help us keep pests under control.

So, in the end, stop! in the name of ladybugs. They deserve a home too, and if we’re able to shift our perspectives of what a garden “should” look like, we can very easily and with far less work give them such a thing as well.

If you’d like to find out other ways you can increase biodiversity in your yard or landscape, contact me!