Garden Q&A: Keeping autumn leaves to help garden critters

For The Baltimore Sun

What’s missing from my yard that I don’t get more butterflies and birds? I grow the plants that feed them and don’t use pesticides.

Leave the leaves! We have to unlearn old habits sometimes. Disposing of autumn leaves has become a ritual, but most of the beneficial insects we love such as butterflies and moths, plus insects and other critters that birds eat, need leaf litter to survive the winter. Leaves protect them, and in spring some eat these old leaves. Litter is a misnomer. Fallen leaves are not trash. They are the habitat of a wide swath of the ecosystem. We need at least two inches of leaf litter to mimic a natural environment. Whole leaves are best, as mulching leaves kills many animals in their cocoon, egg, pupal or chrysalis stages. Try raking or vacuuming leaves off the lawn. Put leaves at the base of plants and on bare garden soil--not on top of groundcovers though. They’re a great free mulch. Extra leaves can go into a leaf pile that will decompose and provide you with nutritious compost next year. Standing dead plant material, which we also itch to clean up, is a haven for overwintering critters, too.

I bought a dwarf umbrella plant and its leaves are getting cream-colored blotches. It’s in a porcelain container that we made into a pot by drilling a drainage hole in the bottom. Is the porcelain causing the color change? Could wet soil change the color? This pot stays wet all the time. I don’t overwater my plants. I only water when the soil on top gets dry. My other plants are in glazed ceramic plants and doing fine.

The container has nothing to do with the leaf color. You probably have one of the popular variegated dwarf scheffleras, so the color is normal. The soggy soil could be problematic, however. All your containers are nonporous. They require less watering because they don’t evaporate moisture out the sides like a clay pot. The soil in your new pot should dry like your other pots unless 1) the drainage hole is too small or clogged, or 2) the plant is too small for the pot and not able to use up water quickly enough. In soggy soil, schefflera may get root rot. Water a schefflera moderately during the active growth period, allowing the top two thirds of the soil mix to dry out between waterings. Water even less in winter. You may need to transplant your schefflera into a smaller pot until it grows big enough for the porcelain one.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Maryland’s Gardening Experts” to send questions and photos.

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