By Andrea Alban-Davies, Rye Garden Club Conservation Committee

Westchester County legislators and other concerned parties have made admirable efforts to educate all of us on the benefits of embracing the Leaves: Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em campaign. I have written on numerous occasions about the huge benefits of keeping your leaves in your garden, rather than hauling them away. Leaves are part of the natural carbon cycle of any green area, and are just about solid gold when it comes to maintaining the health and vitality of your soil. Healthy soil yields systemic garden health – trees, bushes, flowers, and grass are all thrive when your soil is alive with nutrients and microbes.

All of that is well understood by most gardeners; however, embracing the actual practices that are best for our soil (and for the birds that winter here!) is not as easy to do. While these practices cut down hugely on garden work, the tough part is tolerating the messy (or only relatively clean) look. Some gardeners have also told me that they worry what their neighbors – all with immaculate lawns – will think of their leaf-strewn gardens. After all, we live in a beautiful community, where most everyone takes great care of their property. Who wants to be the only house on the block with dried out perennials hanging around all winter, and leaves massed in beds or left on lawns?

This is where signaling comes in. Think of an old, threadbare upholstered chair… now think of that same chair with a sign in front of it that says, “Early 19th century American Federal chair, original upholstery.” Aside from the fact that such a sign changes that chair from something you couldn’t give away into a Christie’s auction item, it also lets everyone know that the threadbare look is by design. The same goes for your garden. If you are adhering to sustainable, natural gardening practices, and inviting birds, butterflies, insects, and other wildlife into your garden, the mulched leaves on your grass or plant beds take on a new meaning. As do the dried stalks and flower heads of your native plants. They are there by design; they are the product of a holistic, nature-driven approach to your green space.

Luckily, in Rye, we don’t have to go searching for an effective way to signal such a philosophy. We have two programs – complete with explanatory signage – that have already been widely adopted in our town.

The first is the Rye Healthy Yard Program run by the Rye Sustainability Committee. Residents can sign a pledge to espouse natural landscaping practices that include, but are not limited to, eliminating the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, using native plants, adopting responsible watering practices, leaving grass clippings in place, mowing high, composting, and mulching leaves. Once you sign the pledge, you’ll get a sign to place at the front of your garden stating that “This Is a Rye Healthy Yard”.

The other is the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Certified Wildlife Habitat program. It requires that properties embrace sustainable gardening and landscaping practices and provide adequate “habitat” – food, plants, water, shelter, and nesting sites – for butterflies, birds, frogs, and other beautiful and beneficial wildlife. (Native plants meet the criteria for food, plants, shelter, and nesting sites, and a simple birdbath meets the requirement for a water source.)

Because Friends of Rye Nature Center hopes to make our town an NWF-certified “Community Wildlife Habitat”, someone from the Nature Center will even come to your house to help you determine if your property qualifies for certification. Once you get it, you are provided with a sign that you can display right beside your healthy yard sign.

So, go ahead and embrace those beneficial gardening practices, and let everyone know that you’re doing so. One or two simple signs turn a somewhat “messy” garden into something else entirely – a chemical-free, vibrant, sustainable, living sanctuary for creatures great and small.