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story.lead_photo.caption A garden full of native plants attracts beneficial insects, such as this Blue Dasher dragonfly, pictured here perching on a purple coneflower seedhead. The Missouri Department of Conservation encourages leaving dead plants in the garden over the winter to provide shelter and food for creatures. Photo by Helen Wilbers / Fulton Sun.

On the first day of fall, the Missouri Department of Conservation encouraged gardeners to "leaf a little litter" in the garden.

"A lot of us used to spend a lot of time cleaning garden beds in fall, getting beds ready for winter," said Jamie Koehler, who hosted an MDC virtual talk on the topic Tuesday.

But by letting your garden go wild in winter, you create shelter and food for many insects, amphibians, birds, reptiles and small mammals, she explained. Birds feed on dry seedheads, while insects — vital pollinators and an important food source for birds and other creatures — curl up in the leaf litter or bore into hollow dead stems.

"Some roll up inside leaves and make themselves a little sleeping bag," Koehler said.

She encouraged leaving leaf litter and dead stems in the garden over the winter.

"If you do take them down, add them to your compost heap instead of hauling off somewhere," she said. "It already has insects hibernating in it. By putting them in your compost heap you give them a chance to make it to spring, emerge and come out again."

Koehler urged against using leaf blowers to clear leaves away — the heat they generate can harm the insects slumbering in the leaves and just below the ground's surface, she said.

She also urged leaving dead trees and logs in place, if they're somewhere where they won't pose a danger to people or structures.

"They're great for the insects that hide and help decompose the log slowly but surely," she said.

This approach to gardening fits with what Koehler calls "naturescaping."

"Most traditional gardening techniques are for the gardener or what our culture and our society has deemed as being a pretty garden," Koehler said. "It means lush green with a big lawn, symmetrical, neat and tidy, nice paths, keeping everything trimmed. Naturescaping is kind of the opposite of all that — I think of it as messy gardening."

Naturescaping is gardening with nature in mind, rather than traditional gardening standards.

"You're using plants that are going to entice them, benefit them," Koehler said. "By doing that, you'll have so much more life in your garden than just the plants. You'll have all kinds of different colors and sounds."

Choose natives

Naturescaping uses native plants, because those plants provide the most benefits for native species of animals.

"Plants that come from nurseries aren't bad, but they've been hybridized throughout the ages for specific kinds of traits," Koehler said. "Roses have been hybridized for that beautiful red color, for long stems with few thorns and to be long-lasting."

These traits might benefit a florist, but they come at a price.

"What was lost in that whole process is fragrance," Koehler said. "Almost all of our modern roses have absolutely no smell to them."

They're less enticing to pollinator species than Missouri's several native roses, which are thornier and less showy but a better food source to native wildlife.

Native plants also require less tending than imported species — with deep tap roots, they can drink water far below the surface. They're used to being nibbled on by native insects, so they don't need treatment with pesticides. Most demand less fertilizer, as well. This keeps those substances from entering the ground and water sources, Koehler said.

They have another trait that can be a blessing or a curse for a gardener — most are perennial (returning year after year) or at least self-sowing, and many spread readily.

"You might have more trouble keeping them controlled," Koehler noted. "They're very weedy — you have to stay on top of it or they'll take your garden over. But that's a small price to pay for benefits we have."

Additionally, native plants can be a beautiful source of fall and even winter color. Koehler named some of her favorites, and noted grownative.org as a good place to learn more.

"Asters are gorgeous," she said.

Missouri has multiple native asters (family Asteraceae), all of which are perennial and come in a variety of colors (including a lovely purple). They prefer full sun and can tolerate poor soil.

"Because they're late bloomers, they're very important for pollinators and especially our monarch butterflies," Koehler said.

Unlike some insects, monarchs head south for the winter by the millions. They need to sip on nectar from plants like asters to survive the long flight.

Much-maligned goldenrod (genus Solidago) is another favorite. Many folks mistakenly believe goldenrod causes hay fever, she said. The actual culprit is ragweed, which has less-showy, greenish blooms rather than goldenrod's yellow plumes. Goldenrod pollen is large and heavy — unlike ragweed pollen, it doesn't blow up into the air and trigger allergies, Koehler said.

"I think they're such a beautiful happy color in the fall," she added.

Missouri's goldenrod can grow to 8 feet to quite short, depending on the species. They're beloved by pollinators.

"You'll find entire community of different insects living there," Koehler said. "Ambush insects that eat other insects will be attracted to goldenrods because for them, it's like a buffet."

Koehler warned goldenrod spreads quite quickly — be prepared to weed them regularly once they're established.

Less well-known, and less weedy, is the rose turtlehead (Chelone obliqua). Unlike goldenrod and asters, it prefers partial shade and damp soil. Each 2- to 3-foot-tall plant is topped with a spike of snapdragon-like flowers in a lovely pink. They continue blooming until September.

"I don't think there's a prettier sight than a bumblebee who's crawled into a turtlehead flower trying to get down to the nectar," Koehler said.

She also mentioned Missouri's native grasses, such as river oats, turkeyfoot, bluestem and prairie dropseed. They tend to grow in clumps and provide excellent erosion control, as well as food and shelter for wildlife.

Missouri's four sumac species — which do not include poison sumac — are among the first plants to change color in autumn.

"You can see them right now along the highways — they're fire-engine red," Koehler said.

They range in size from shrubs to small trees, are easy and produce clusters of bright red berries, which are high in Vitamin C and make an excellent tea or lemonade, Koehler added.

Deciduous holly (Ilex decidua), also known as possumhaw, retains its bright orange berries through the winter.

"But even a brown, dead plant is beautiful to look at," Koehler opined. "It catches the frost and snow and reflects the sunlight."

To learn about and register for MDC's upcoming classes, visit mdc.mo.gov/events.

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