Last week I took my cat to the vet and the nice receptionist, who after a newspaper article about moi this summer found out that I gardened, asked me what a gardener does to a garden for winter. I said a gardener does nothing.
At a work-related reception a person asked me if I’d cut everything down yet. No, I replied, absolutely not. Ah, winter interest they responded. Sorta, I said, resisting the urge to proselytize. “I like to leave stuff up for the wildlife.” Ah, rabbits they replied. “No. A dozen varieties of birds. Possums. Even mice.” Oh, was the response, I guess that’s a good idea.
Not only is it a good idea, it’s a super-sparkly-gumdrop-awesome-magic-stupendous idea. Here are the reasons not to cut down your garden in fall:
1) You’re tired.
2) The thought of prepping for winter is not nearly as exciting as prepping for spring. It’s winter already? Again?
3) “Winter interest” (As if the garden is dull in winter—such a derogatory term.)
4) Stems gather snow and insulate crowns, protecting from frost heave. Also, no snipped hollow stems which would let water get down to the plant’s heart and freeze it to death.
5) Benefit to all sorts of living, moving wildlife, and also that wildlife currently sleeping under leaves, beneath twigs, and in chrysalides and sacks and webs and in hollow stems and…. (And all those early insects that will pollinate my viburnum and crabapples.)
We had our first snow last weekend, just three inches, but it bent over all my 4-8’ plants. This means fewer places for birds to perch, but it also creates a bird super highway. There are well worn paths amongst, into, and out of bent over plants laden with snow, as if these were places of commerce or speak easies. I may not be walking my garden right now when the temperature hovers around ten degrees, but others are walking it.
Last year I witnessed a hawk nab a junco who had just walked out from under the cover of a sedum. It was a clean kill and I felt sad. Then I felt happy. The seed heads and cover I left up provide safety and shelter to who knows what, and it may also serve as a buffet for those animals further up the food chain.
I’m sure I will wait until the plants are already several inches high in early April until I cut back the old stems, just as I did last spring, because I know the refuge this place is in my lawn-infested neighborhood. But it also takes a few days to “clean” my 2,000 foot native prairie garden—it is a good deal of work since I hand cut stems and use them as mulch—but that’s all the work I have to do until the following spring.
Frankly, I’m just as interested in the winter garden as the summer one. And that’s not a gardener parent saying he loves his two garden kids equally because he has to save face. I mean it. Bring me a hard winter full of rest and patience so my spring may be coiled more tightly, ready to leap exuberantly once the snow melts.
And uh, if you want to read more about my garden and its first three years, I have an inexpensive little memoir for you.
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