Tuesday, November 24, 2015

My Garden's A Mess-- I Like It That Way

This "untidy" wildlife garden provides important habitat for lots of small wild creatures.

My garden's a mess! Here's why that's ok.

Lots of garden books and websites talk about tidying your garden at the end of fall: cleaning up, removing dead and spent plants and debris, and so forth. I always used to feel guilty when I read those articles because I never got around to much outdoor tidying. But I've learned since then that you want to help wildlife it's actually important to leave quite a bit of deliberate mess in your winter garden. Hooray!

My garden beds are only ever tidy looking before anything has been planted there,
like these two new beds I added this fall.  They'll never be this "tidy" again.

What To Keep... and What to Discard

Of course it matters what you keep and what you don't. I'm not advocating complete garden anarchy here. You definitely want to clean up and discard any diseased plants, and you probably want to remove the more persistent weeds that are likely to survive through the winter. Otherwise you'll still have the same disease around in the spring, and those weeds will only be stronger for having slowly grown enormous root systems during the winter. Little devils!

You should, however, keep plenty of seedheads from your flowers so that winter birds can munch on them. My goldfinches love echinacea, for example. Also important are hollow plant stems. Many insects survive the winter by sheltering inside them, and birds like Carolina Wrens and Downy Woodpeckers love snacking on those little nuggets when they find them!

Plenty of seeds in this goldenrod for the finches, and I'm sure lots of tiny insects and spiders for wrens as well!

Leaf debris is important for your garden's health as well as the wildlife's. Not only will the leaves slowly decay over the winter, returning important nutrients to your soil, but many small creatures will shelter in them. Many moth species form their cocoons in the leaf litter, so if you're too assiduous in removing fallen leaves you might actually be removing your gorgeous moths as well!

Over the years plenty of fallen leaves have built up in this bed. I add to them by raking in leaves from my driveway or the road gutters. The natural mulch definitely helps my plants; I hope there are unseen creatures benefiting too.

Additions To the Messy Fall Garden: Structures and Shelters

I often also leave up some of the trellis structures I built, since many birds like to perch on them during the winter. My feeders get pretty crowded at times, and it's fun to see whole squadrons of finches and doves lined up on the fences and tomato frames waiting their turn. If you're participating in FeederWatch this season, like I wrote about here, you get to count all the birds attracted to your yard, whether they're actually on the feeder or just waiting. Bonus! If you didn't have any trellises in your summer garden, you could easily add some structures for the fall & winter.

This fence at the edge of my property is often full of sparrows waiting their turn at the feeder, or surveying the area before deciding it's safe enough to forage on the ground. You could provide similar benefits with something as simple as a twiggy branch or two stuck in the ground.

Some butterflies that overwinter as adults, like Commas and Question Marks, will shelter under loose bark to survive the cold. If your trellis was built from natural logs or branches, you might host a few butterflies too! Some wildlife gardeners also like to keep a loose brush pile to provide shelter in the wintertime. One of the most important things about building a brush pile for shelter is to make sure there are plenty of holes and access points for small creatures to enter. Chipmunks, shrews, insects, songbirds, and more might use your brush pile to escape cold, rain, and snow, as well as hide from their predators. In my wildlife garden beds I just leave lots of fallen leaves and debris for small creatures to use as shelter.

The tangles of sprawling wood aster provide plenty of cover for small sparrows, and also keep blooming quite late in the season, providing food for many honey bees and other insects.

So whether you're a lazy gardener, a newbie gardener running out of time, or even an experienced gardener just starting to get into this whole gardening for wildlife thing, relax! The stuff you don't have time to clean up from your garden this fall is probably better off left in place. You can even build new structures to add to your garden's habitat, like creating special log piles to give wrens a cozy place to hide from predators, or adding stumps with loose bark to shelter butterflies and other bugs.

I hope you enjoy sharing your garden with wildlife this fall and winter. What else do you do in the cold weather to make a welcoming home for birds, bugs, and other beasties? Leave me a note in the comments so I can try it too!

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