Blue Ridge Naturalist: Seasonal Advice to Help Wildlife This Autumn

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Drivers don’t seem to understand the meaning of deer caution signs. You should slow down after passing one of them. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

Deer mating season is upon us, which means bucks are busy chasing does along their own dirt highways that sometimes intersect with our paved ones. To warn drivers to be especially on the lookout for these amorous hoofed mammals in areas of high deer density, the highway department places yellow signs with an image of a deer on them. But hardly anyone seems to understand the point of these signs!

You are supposed to slow down a bit and watch for deer ahead if you want at least some hope of avoiding a collision with deer crossing the road in front of you. Yet I have never seen anyone do this. Even if the speed limit is 55 or more, people just keep on zooming.

It’s especially prudent to slow down so you can come to a stop, if necessary, when more than one deer is crossing. Males are chasing females in fall and herds are crossing together all year. Slamming on the brakes or swerving at a high rate of speed to avoid a deer collision is exceedingly dangerous, especially if there are other vehicles on the road.

The fall clean-up is a common horticultural practice of homeowners. But removing spent plant debris from your yard and garden so as to limit the spread of disease and insects seen as “harmful” (no insect exists to seriously harm healthy plants) is detrimental to the proper functioning of the environment. Additionally, the premise is based upon faulty reasoning.

First, there are uncountable numbers of fungal spores, bacteria, and viruses in the environment. You can’t possibly make a dent in their numbers simply by sending your affected plants to the landfill, an action that locks them up and removes them from the environment instead of recycling them.

Because matter is being neither created nor destroyed, it’s limited. That’s why it’s so important for all organic material (i.e., derived from living matter) to be broken down and returned to the soil in order to support, and become, new life.

Second, the fungal spores, bacteria, and viruses associated with “disease” and considered “germs” are essential components of the environment, playing important roles in the cycling of carbon and other nutrients when the plants they affect die.  It’s not your job to try to limit these plant pathogens because they function to prevent overpopulations.

Third, plant problems are always the result of an environment that is not functioning optimally, perhaps because of unsuitable weather, plant overcrowding, the creation of an unnatural monoculture, or the introduction of an alien pathogen the plants did not evolve with. Doomed plants should be added to the compost pile and you should address the cause of the problem, if that’s possible.

“Spent” flowering plants should not be cut, but instead left standing in place until spring, not only in gardens but also in fields. If the plants have made seeds or fruits, this food will be available to birds and mammals still active in fall and perhaps into winter. If the plants have hollow stems, or seed pods that are partially open, these structures can provide refuge for some kinds of insects and spiders to make it through colder days.

If you feel you must limit populations of particular organisms, you need to recognize the necessity of living in agreement with nature. Most adult insects can fly, which is how they end up in your yard.

You should start working on creating a nature-friendly garden that will bring in the required predators. Indeed, this “secret” to gardening without the use of pesticides is truly the only way you can have an environment that perpetually rebalances populations so that no one organism becomes overly numerous and problematic.

So don’t waste your time and energy on a pointless task. Skip the fall clean-up and enjoy the wonderful days of autumn instead!

Another highly detrimental-to-wildlife activity that humans engage in is the removal of fallen leaves from the yard. Although leaves must be taken off lawns and perennial beds to keep them from being smothered, leaves should—for the most part—be left underneath the trees that shed them.

All natural occurrences happen for a reason. Leaves are the natural mulch a tree provides for itself to maintain appropriate soil moisture and temperature for the benefit of its roots. Its annual shedding also creates a wonderful blanket to protect many kinds of critters throughout the winter.

If you can’t keep leaves underneath your trees, you really should rethink your landscape.  Remove grass or plants that don’t belong underneath a tree anyway, or get rid of any trees that make too many leaves for you to leave in place. It’s nonsensical to make work for yourself (or to pay others to do it for you) by gardening out of sync with Mother Nature.

And note that when leaves are removed with the use of small engines, natural resources are used up and our air and water are polluted. If you must remove leaves, you really ought to use a rake (which is better for your health, too!).

Now’s the time that bears are busy trying to put on enough fat to hibernate. Avoid putting garbage into your trash cans that will attract them. If you own a house with a yard, you really should be recycling all organic matter back into the environment by composting or burying it.

Of course, it’s best to limit the amount of food you throw away by carefully planning how much you truly need to buy in the first place. Then you won’t waste money either!

However, if you can’t avoid putting garbage into a trash can, secure the lid with a chain. It’s best for bears and you if they are not able to feed upon your food waste.

And if you live in bear country, wait to put out bird feeders until very cold weather has set in. By then these big animals should be asleep for the winter.

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