As community conservation manager for Audubon Connecticut, Ken Elkins is a big believer in the benefits, both ecological and aesthetic, of creating bird-friendly spaces in our backyards. The good news for those growing weary of yard work by this time of year is that many of the fall chores that are “for the birds” happen to focus on what chores you shouldn’t do, as opposed to those you should — happily resulting in an autumn workload that’s “quite a bit lighter than what you’re used to doing outdoors,” Elkins says. Think you can handle it?
Leave those leaves
See that sparrow over there? He’s got his eye on you, and wants you to step away from that rake. No, really. Put it down. “Suburbia has a certain expectation of what’s acceptable in terms of leaf cover,” says Elkins (as in bag ’em up and get ’em out of here). “Birds and pollinators, however, don’t follow the same guidelines. Leaving those leaves right where they fall whenever possible is the best thing you can do.” Insects overwinter in leaf piles and birds like your bud the white-throated sparrow are going to spend the frosty days ahead combing through those piles looking for their next meal. If you instead bundle your leaves out on the curb, “you’re taking away their food source,” Elkins says. The added bonus? Leaves are truly what Elkins calls a “natural fertilizer,” which means less chemicals you may have to use come spring. If you just can’t stomach the disarray, finely shred them with a mulching mower (after you finish following That Garden Guy’s tips, of course — see Green Acres, below) and let them remain on the front lawn as mulch, while allowing those in the backyard to either “run” free or be gathered with any stray branches into a pile in a less conspicuous corner of the yard, Elkins suggests. The birds will find them.
Just say no
Truth be told, you might as well go ahead and put down those pruners, too, because you should not be pruning or cutting back any flowers or shrubs in the fall, according to Elkins. Our feathered friends are counting on these remaining vestiges of summer as a food source (even the tiniest of seeds, like those produced by bee balm, will be found by birds like juncos, sparrows and mourning doves), which also includes the tasty insects that like to curl beneath the leaves of spent perennials in an effort to hide from chickadees and downy woodpeckers eager for lunch. Hard-working pollinators like solitary native bees (which don’t form colonies) are also known to lay their eggs in the dried-out, hollow stems of native plants like echinacea and goldenrod (look closely and you might see the tiny bulge), and are counting on you to leave them be until spring. (That said, sickly stems and rotted debris that could harbor disease or less amiable garden visitors should be removed.)
Still feeling the need to sink your hands into the soil a few more times before it freezes? If you’re looking to expand your selection of native plants (which would, of course, be music to our birdies’ tiny little “ears” due to the vastly superior assortment of insects they host in comparison to non-natives) “fall is a spectacular time to do it,” Elkins says. Think New England aster, wood lily, swamp milkweed, and cardinal flower. Pollinator-friendly bulbs like allium and crocus are another option to get in the ground. “They may not be natives,” Elkins says, “but they pop in spring, which is awesome for the pollinators."
Lawn looking a bit beat up after the hot, dry summer? “There’s no need to wait until spring to give it a makeover,” says Lee Ganim of Ganim’s Garden Center & Florist in Fairfield and host of That Garden Guy, which airs on Sunday mornings on WICC 600. Now through mid-October, when “the days are shorter, the soil warmer than in spring and moisture more abundant every morning with the dew factor” is, in fact, one of the best times to rejuvenate your “green,” Ganim says. “In fact, grass seed that can take two to four weeks in spring, sometimes sprouts in less than a week in early October,” which means you’d better get started. Here are some Garden Guy tips on how to do just that.
Step 1: Time for a haircut — and make it a close one. It’s best to cut your lawn right down to 1½ inches from the ground this time of year, according to Ganim. “You don’t want to head into winter with long strands of grass that can flop over and develop a fungus.”
Step 2: “You’ve heard the saying ‘happy wife, happy life’?” Ganim asks. Well, when it comes to grass that is greener, it’s “ ‘happy roots, happy plant,’ ” — and “happy” roots need oxygen. “If you don’t get oxygen to the roots they will not grow as deep.” Ganim recommends aerating the lawn once a year, by renting or purchasing your very own plug aerator, which uses hollow tines to remove plugs of soil, thus allowing space for that air to circulate, water to soak in and roots to expand. Afterward, wait a few days for plugs to dry out, then it’s time for …
Step 3: A power play — with a power rake, (sometimes referred to as a “dethatcher”) to bring up thatch, dead grass and any remnants of those plugs.
Step 4: Fill in any low spots with a good topsoil before seeding (Ganim recommends Coast of Maine Organic Products Topsoil), and then rake evenly. If you need to apply more than 2 inches, be sure to tamp it down with a roller.
Step 5: Apply a starter fertilizer to your whole lawn. Ganim recommends 10-18-10, which has a high concentration of phosphorus to increase the odds of germination, encourage root growth and help those tender new roots get through the winter.
Step 6: Choose the proper seed blend (sunny, sun and shade, shade, heavy traffic…) and apply 5 pounds per 1,000 square feet on bare areas or 2½ pounds per 1,000 square feet if overseeding (i.e. spreading seed over the whole lawn). Avoid one-size-fits-all “national” seed programs and instead choose one suited to your region, Ganim suggests. “Cool season grasses like bluegrass, fescue and ryegrass do well here in Connecticut.”
Step 7: Top seeded area with clean straw mulch or a grass-seed accelerator like PennMulch, a pelletized recycled-paper mulch that expands to three times its original size when watered. Water well, then check daily to make sure the seed bed is moist. “We tend to overwater,” Ganim says. “Plants have to breathe, and a good bath once a week is best, as opposed to seven showers.” In November, follow up with a winter fertilizer blend that’s high in nitrogen.