Seed heads like this native goldenrod provide food for birds during winter.

Transitioning from traditional to native landscaping requires a paradigm shift in the way we view and maintain our yards.

We expound on the benefits of native plants, and how they are a much healthier choice for the environment, yet neighbors and friends may think they are not as appealing, let alone attractive. That's especially true as winter sets in and the plants brown out and go into their dormant stage. The looks and care of native yards are different from the traditional way we enhance our property with landscaping.

The traditional way of winterizing a garden is to cut flowers and plants back to their base. Leaves are raked up then carted away. This tidies up the area and makes the property look “well kept”.

Educators of native landscaping have a different approach. They suggest you leave the seed heads and cut back the plants in the spring rather then the fall. They also recommend you not necessarily rake up the leaves. This may look unkempt to those who don’t understand why. But there is a very good reason for this.

Worms, insects and grubs disappear in the winter and birds are hard pressed to find nourishment. Insects find their way into the stalks of plants and under fallen leaves to survive the winter. This provides an important food source for wintering birds.

Birds foraging for food know to look for these insects and their eggs in these plants and leaves.

Rather than raking and removing leaves, it may be more beneficial to leave the leaves. In nature, fallen leaves blanket the ground, adding a layer of protection to the soil. Microbes eventually break down the leaves, returning the nutrients and enriching the soil. Urban lawns are different from a forest, but the process is the same. Leaves can smother a lawn, but raking them into surrounding beds will help protect the plants and soil.

By putting your leaves in a composter along with vegetable waste, you will create some of the best organic, nutrient-rich compost material for your garden for next spring. Raking leaves into garden beds not only helps protect the soil, it adds organic nutrients as they begin to decay.

Garden expert Pat Sutton will be presenting “How To Make Messy Look Good” at the next meeting of the Southeast Chapter of the NJ Native Plant Society at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 20, at Stockton University room C136. The meeting is free and open to the public.

To learn more, you can visit the Native Plant Society of New Jersey website,

Sustainable Downbeach is working toward creating a healthier, friendlier community with an eye on protecting the environment. For information or to get involved see Sustainable Downbeach on Facebook.

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