Let Local Wildlife Teach You the Value of an “Untidy” Garden

note: Often the purpose of links is to indicate further information is available on related topics. These links are independent, and I do hope you check out some of them!

a seed head from a flower, probably Queen Anne's lace, covered with snow

Two of the best short things I’ve read lately came out over the weekend. One is “Let Your Winter Garden Go Wild” by Margaret Renkl, and we’ll get to the other one soon enough, but what I want to draw your attention to is the broad topic they share. The best term for that common theme, “biosphere,” might seem to you like a rather new word, even a trendy one, but in fact Austrian geologist Eduard Suess first used it in 1875 when he wrote The Origin of the Alps. If that title seems parallel to On the Origin of Species (1859), you realize you don’t have to climb around or explore very far to arrive at two others who prepared the verbal and conceptual soil for that term “biosphere”: Charles Darwin and American Matthew Maury. The rest is history, as John Wade put it back in 1839, so let’s proceed to these timely and topical thoughts from Margaret:

I don’t tuck in my flower beds any more. Year by year, the little creatures that share this yard have been teaching me the value of an untidy garden. This year I learned not to cut back the monkey grass, and now the robins will have plenty of dried berries on the first snow day in coming winters.

branches of a native hawthorn tree, loaded with snow-covered berries
An example even better than the introduced plant she uses would be a native one, such as this hawthorn.

An unkempt garden offers more than just food for the birds. The late offspring of certain butterflies, like the black swallowtail, spend fall and winter sealed away in a chrysalis clinging to the dried stems in what’s left of a summer garden. Others overwinter as eggs or caterpillars buried deep in the leaf litter beneath their host plants.

Most species of native bees — or their fertilized queens, at least — hibernate underground during winter. An industrious gardener pulling up dead annuals could expose them to the cold, and one who mulches too deeply could block their escape in spring. Other beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings, and parasitic wasps spend winter in the hollow stems of old flowers.

leaning dry seed heads covered with snow in a wintry landscapeThat much would be quite enough, but another excerpt indicates the scale of this approach. It’s not just about leaving the little things alone. Some of the bigger things get left, too:

These days we don’t drag fallen limbs out to the street for the city chipper service to clean up, either, and we don’t haul our Christmas tree away at the end of the holidays. A good brush pile is a boon to ground-foraging birds, which eat insects from the decomposing wood, and to all manner of small animals hiding from predators or sheltering from the wind and snow.

Next we have a related message from Alex Cantwell, a horticulturist at the Norfolk Botanical Garden in Virginia. He recommends Valentine’s Day shoppers consider options beyond cut flowers, and even beyond live plants–native plants. But didja notice even with a stated purpose of promoting native species, he had to throw in one example that isn’t?a pile of red roses lies on a table just ready to be made into a bouquetThis Valentine’s Day, go beyond a dozen red roses. By the way, that phrase “in place of flowers” is the best way to make a florist cringe . . . but in this case it comes at a time there still ought to be plenty of business to help pay the bills.

Need some motivation to not choose that luscious, velvety collection of really beautiful and very popular flowers? Have a dose of reality to put the choices in perspective.

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