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"Cleaning Up" the Yard?

There are two ways you can help wildlife — and the soil — when it comes time to "clean up" the yard.

Keep Leaf Litter On Site!

First, do not rake up and burn or remove all the leaves off your property. Instead, allow the leaves to remain in place where they can decompose naturally and recycle nutrients back into the ground. You might try this in a corner of the yard or an area where you've had difficulty growing grass. Why fight nature and try to grow grass in an area where leaves would suffice as a natural groundcover? As the leaves break down, they form a substrate for insects and salamanders to find a home, and a place for small mammals and birds to find something to eat.

If you want to speed up the breakdown process, you can "mulch in place" by using a rotary mower to chop up the leaves at the same time you mow the grass. Keep the mower height the same as for cutting the grass and be sure the blade is sharp; it is best to mow the leaves when dry. Move slowly and make at least 2 or 3 passes over the leaves to grind thoroughly. The finer the leaf particles, the easier it will be for them to work their way down into the turf and gradually feed the grass roots directly; this will only take a day or two, especially if it rains shortly thereafter.

Get into the habit of mowing the leaves regularly and do not allow them to lie on the grass for more than a few days. Because leaves are rich in nutrients like carbon, phosphorous and potassium, you'll be saving money with this method by reducing the need for fertilizer on the lawn. In addition, the organic matter you keep on site will build better soil structure and improve soil loaminess (fluffiness), which fertilizer alone cannot do.

Another method is to compost your leaves in a compost pile over the spring and summer, along with other organic matter periodically added from the kitchen, such as vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds and egg shells (do not add meat, bones or grease to a compost pile). If you turn the pile regularly and follow some simple guidelines, by the end of the season you'll have a nice pile of FREE organic matter to topdress your flower beds and use as a mulch around the shrubs. A fine application of composted material directly on the lawn will also return nutrients to the turf (sprinkle no more than a ¼-inch layer of compost onto the grass-just enough to work its way down between the plants, not cover up the grass blades).

See the following fact sheet for more about composting:

Build a Brush Pile

A second way to recycle yard "debris" is to use the larger pieces to construct a brush pile. Brush piles are a simple tool to provide escape cover as well as nesting or denning sites for all sorts of wildlife, such as chipmunks, foxes, small rodents, lizards, garter snakes, box turtles, and many species of birds and insects.

To get started, choose a location in an out-of-the way place in the yard. Avoid siting the brush pile next to a building or other structure: we want wildlife to go under the pile, not under a house or garage! Rather, use a fencerow or a property-line hedge as a backdrop, or locate the pile under a stand of trees. Allow for plenty of space, as a good brush pile should be at least a minimum of 6 to 8 feet long and tall-the bigger, the better. Some sources recommend 10 feet long by 4 feet high. Regardless of what shape you choose, it's the overall size that determines how much the pile will be used.

There are two kinds of brush piles. The easiest kind to construct is built with downed limbs and branches that are already dead. Notice that we use the word "construct." Contrary to popular opinion, a brush pile is not just a bunch of dead leaves and sticks dumped into a heaping mound on the ground. A trash pile like that doesn't have very many spaces in and around the bottom of the stack, nor spaces within it for birds and other creatures to maneuver. Instead, a properly constructed brush pile will begin with a base layer of large rocks or branches on the ground. To this base we add more large branches criss-cross, as if making a small log cabin. Smaller branches are then laid against this bottom structure or foundation in a tepee-fashion. In this way we create lots of small openings and gaps for wildlife to crawl under or fly into. The more "nooks and crannies" in the brush pile, the better-it should be fairly loose and open, not a dense mass.

The second kind of structure is a "living" brush pile. With this method you partially cut through a tree trunk 4 or 5 feet above the ground and allow the tree to lodge over. This "hinge cut" leaves most of the bark intact because the tree remains attached to its stump. Hence the tree continues to live and receive nutrients from the ground and can last this way for many years. Cedar trees or other evergreens are well-suited for this practice, because they provide a living screen year-round.

For more details about building a brush pile, take a look at the following fact sheets: