There’s something magic about this time of year… especially if you garden in a way that permits messiness… and you haven’t deadheaded everything. (My speciality.) I love the wild abandon of my garden in the fall, and that I can stroll through and tickle the fading cosmos and calendulas and little clusters of seeds will fall into the palm of my hand.
(FYI Messy or lazy gardening is a movement, not just my personal tendency. It’s just a happy coincidence for me that there’s a group of people endorsing it. Basically, it means delaying your garden clean up until the spring, when temperatures have reached 10 degrees Celsius for 3 days in a row. That supports all the other critters – native bees, butterflies, moths, insects, birds, who share your garden. It’s habitat-tending. Permaculture also encourages a chop-and-drop approach to cleaning up the garden – letting things just land in place over the beds. I’ve felt somehow flawed practicing this in the past, because it looks pretty scrappy, but then the soil stays protected and all kinds of volunteers pop up, making less work for me every year. I often wonder if i’m failing at this gardening thing because I control so little of the whole process, and then I check myself… and go back to the harder work of decolonizing my mind, and letting the garden do it’s thing. I mean, why must I be controlling it to feel as though I am contributing constructively?!?!)
What is the definition of “messy”? It means leaving most of the garden flower plant stems uncut so the dried plants are standing upright, leaving leaves on the ground where they fell and having a brush pile made of branches that provide a shelter and home for birds and insects.
Plants with dried seed heads provide winter food for birds. Many native bees and other insects also live in or on the dried plants stems or leaves as eggs, larvae, pupae or adults. They have a type of antifreeze that lets them survive the cold. If dried garden stems are removed the insects are also removed. The exception to this rule is with vegetable debris and perennials plants like phlox that harbor unwanted insects. In these cases get rid of the stems and foliage in hot compost piles before spring.
Leaves that fall from trees often contain the eggs or larvae of butterflies and moths. These insects lay eggs on the leaves of host trees, which are the specific plants that caterpillars need to survive. In the spring the new caterpillars need to be near the host tree’s new leaves in order to eat and survive. These are the insects birds need to feed their young. In our area of the Midwest, oak trees are host plants to 342 species of butterflies and moths.
By removing the leaves that fell near oaks and other trees, these insect populations are diminished.
As for a brush pile, this is a year round place that birds and insects can find shelter and food. The best construction is with large branches on the bottom and lighter ones on top. The pile will decompose providing food for insects and in turn birds. Just keep adding more branches over time.
Even if gardening is not your thing, there’s something quite beautiful in the poetry of seeds that I wanted to share. This zine, by Austin Kleon, is one of many little projects he spent quarantine doing… they remind me of the mini books I made for the library’s Christmas tree last year… Austin explains how to do it in this video.