Cleanliness in a Wildlife Garden: Bad Idea

Aster and sugar maple leaf

Aster lateriflorus (shown here with a sugar maple leaf) is a little untidy in Fall, but loved by short-tongued bees.

Slovenliness is no part of Religion. Cleanliness is indeed close to Godliness,” wrote John Wesley in 1791. Wesley might have known a thing or two about Religion, but he clearly was no wildlife gardener.

Indeed, the pursuit of order and extreme tidiness in gardens is one of the primary factors contributing to a lack of wildlife in modern residential landscapes.

The mowing of grasses, the pruning of perennials, the raking of leaves, and replacement of mulches are all common but deadly gardening practices. For birds, butterflies, bees, and other animals these “clean up” activities quite literally mean death.

black gum

Black gum is great for Fall color and for wildlife habitat.

Fall is a time when gardeners seem to start feeling antsy, and start looking for something to do. One of the best things you can do in your garden in October and November is nothing: let it be, and enjoy watching it. Underneath those leaves are millions of little decomposing insects working hard to carry organic matter into your soil. Inside the stems of those perennials are dozens of species of caterpillars finding shelter from Winter’s drying winds. Grad a latte, sit, and watch.

If you must do something, then plant more trees and shrubs. While research shows that one of the worst things you can to to a wildlife garden is “tidy it up”, we also knows that one of the best things you can do to encourage wildlife in your garden is to offer a wide variety of woody plants of varying heights and a wide diversity of habitat types (e.g. compost heaps, log piles, leaf litter, long grasses).

And when you are looking for trees and flowers to plant, don’t exclude ones that unsay gardeners consider to be “messy.”

For example, the Unviversity of Tennessee agricultural extension service published a brochure called “Trees to Reconsider Before Planting“. It contains the following gem:

“As they mature, many trees produce seeds and fruits that may be a nuisance to homeowners. Nuts from hickories and walnut, acorns from oaks, sweetgum and sycamore balls are a few of the antagonists. Fleshy fruits from trees such as cherry and crabapple can also be messy and bothersome.”

Of course we know that it is precisely these “antagonists” which are some of the very best plants for wildlife.

Even trees that aren’t considered “messy” in the traditional sense (if they are considered at all) are excellent if untidy trees.  Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is a beautiful shade tree, especially in fall when the leaves turn gloriously purple and scarlet.  It’s branches, though, sometimes die young leaving decaying openings and a hollow trunk:  perfect nesting spots for bees, owls, raccoons, and many other species.

The bottom line is this: when it comes to wildlife gardening, neat is often the enemy of good.  A successful garden need not be out of control, but inviting a little of the unexpected will pay great dividends.

© 2012, Vincent Vizachero. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks, Vincent, for this timely reminder about knowing what is really important in a garden. And how crazy it is to put deceased plants that have been gathering nutrients all season, stuff them in a plastic bag, send them to a dump, and then replace with mulch containing who knows what from another plastic bag.

    Here’s to spreading the understanding of what is going on under those fallen leaves!
    Sue Dingwell recently posted..The Power of WE, as in WEtland

  2. says

    I was glad to read this. Even as a young boy I used to wonder why people would rake away all their leaves just to add yards and yards of painted mulch. i would think, ” hey the forest seems to do just fine letting her leaves compost where they are”
    The only instance that I would disagree with you on is in the case of a specimen tree that is fighting of a reoccurring blight of fungal infection. I believe that a few years of good hygiene and the introduction of beneficial microorganisms into the soil can help to fend off the lose of an otherwise valuable tree. Parasitic pathogens do exist, even in the most naturally diverse landscape. From time to time these pathogens must be dealt with.

  3. says

    Maybe that’s why gardening with native plants appeals to me so much. I am not a neat and tidy gardener. I will admit to not liking the two walnut trees that are in the area across the street where I’m trying to grow vegetables. I’ve learned that one shouldn’t plant vegetables within a certain distance from walnut trees. I do have several sizes of piles of things over there, and let pokeweed and other weeds grow for whatever critters make use of them.
    Corner Garden Sue recently posted..October’s Wildflowers

  4. Georgia says

    I tidy up by making sure all my tools are away, hose rolled, sidewalk clean, neat and trimmed, fence in good repair, ( at least that is what I am going to do :).

  5. Katie says

    Thanks for the article! I just moved to the suburbs (where I’ve begun planting many native shrubs and flowers), and I’ve noticed that many of my neighbors dump their leaves into the small creek that runs behind all of our houses. I can’t imagine that many leaves are any good in such a small waterway. Do you have any comments or experience with something like this?

Trackbacks

  1. […] The mowing of grasses, the pruning of perennials, the raking of leaves, and replacement of mulches are all common but deadly gardening practices. For birds, butterflies, bees, and other animals these “clean up” activities quite literally mean death.   Fall is a time when gardeners seem to start feeling antsy, and start looking for something to do. One of the best things you can do in your garden in October and November is nothing: let it be, and enjoy watching it. Underneath those leaves are millions of little decomposing insects working hard to carry organic matter into your soil. Inside the stems of those perennials are dozens of species of caterpillars finding shelter from Winter’s drying winds. Grad a latte, sit, and watch.  […]

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