Being a host for Garden Chat on twitter last night made me think about how I garden, esp in the fall. Also, how I've learned to garden. Folks tell me that by looking at my garden pics, they assume my garden is much older, and that I've been a gardener my whole life. Really, the garden and I were born together in July of 2007, and what I've learned has been by trowel and error, and by lots of book reading and obsessive google searching. Hope some of this helps, esp if you're a newbie:
-- Each spring I get hatchback loads of free compost from my city. I use this to top dress the garden and lawn in March / April. I also use it in each new planting hole, on the bottom and sides, and top dress the new plant, water, then mulch. That's all the fertilizer I use. Know what I mulch with? All my herbaceous perennials--which make great homes for insects and spiders on the garden floor.
-- In fall I cut nothing down. Why? Let's take for example the black swallowtail caterpillars currently munching on fennel and parsley. They will soon venture off to form a chrysalis, and remain attached to sticks and stems until April-ish when they emerge. Why would I toss them? A lot of insects are bedding down for winter, insects that will pollinate my perennials, give me more seed, and that will also feed hungry baby birds in May. Speaking of birds--I have 5x as many in the winter now that my garden is mature-ish. Flocks and flocks. Here are some things that depend on you leaving your sticks and leaves alone.
-- Not cutting down part 2: I can see the garden so much more clearly, walk it, and think about what needs work. If you try to design in the summer you can't see anything. Besides, winter sucks already, if you at least leave the garden standing you can IMAGINE it alive, you can dream and plan, and that gets you through. Oh, and plants will grab snow with their stalks for insulation, and hollow-stemmed plants are less likely to freeze and die.
-- I do a lot of research. Right plant for the right place. This often means a native species plant, not a hybrid or cultivar because....
--GARDENING IS NOT HARD WORK. It can be if you want it to be, if you love the act. But look--I think even gardeners suffer from the misconception that gardens mean tending, tending, tending. NO NO NO. If I wanted to do the bare minimum necessary to sustain my 2,000 square feet, I could spend 2-4 feverish days in March in it--that's all. This is because I have the right plants in the right soil and light, because I use compost, because I mulch, and I believe because I use so many natives. If a plant doesn't make it, it doesn't get a second chance, but most do make it.
-- As the garden grows, it supports itself more and more. Roots intermingle and share information and nutrients, also choking out weed roots (and weeds themselves from sunlight in a growing canopy of perennial foliage). Don't plant your garden thin -- go thick. Go tall.
-- Garden pests? Forget about it. I may have 5 million aphids and grasshoppers, but within a week of their appearance I have 10 billion apex predator bugs--assassin, garden spiders, mantis. I don't have to use pesticides, which also means more insects, which means more plants and birds, which means more predators, which means I have more insects, which means more plants and more wildlife....
-- My garden is starting to self sow. I move some seedlings, I kill others, I toss seed in my garden and over the fence on to my neighbor's acreage (and out of my car window). The garden wants to do what it wants to do, and left to its own for years it would become a prairie. But it's a garden. So I garden here and there in bits throughout the year because I want to--but it's not really maintenance.
-- I garden for fall. I have blooms into November here in zone 5 with many species of grasses, burnet, chelone, solidago, aster, eupatorium, (yes I use Latin, you should too, and you'll pick it up naturally as if being in a foreign country). It's fall, think fall--but think spring. Dig now and give your plants a head start. Get things on sale. Water well once, then mulch, then forget about it until March.
Don't know if that was interesting to anyone. I speak about some of this stuff in my memoir Sleep, Creep, Leap, but if anyone ever wants to ask a question, I'm game. I might not have the answer, though, contrary to my cat's opinion of himself (he's walking across my hands right now).
Very nice read - certainly conveys a lot more of what you were trying to get across last night in a series of 140 characters among all the other chatter. We try to follow much of your theory, except this year several of our garden beds are getting full blown makeovers, so, obviously, there will have to be some cutting and pulling and weeding to accomplish that. We do love to leave some gangly things for many of the same reasons - especially the bird factor. Plus, it just looks cool when we get our occasional winter snow, and there's stems and branches and flower heads lightly dusted in whiteness.
Tom--Yeah, Twitter is an ok place to meet up, but it leaves much in the way of conveying info, esp info in clear prose. But if you link to an outside site, I'm not sure how many will follow. I love a still winter evening with snowfall, the quiet, the only sound is the soft rustle of snowflake on snowflake... then the highlighting of the bare garden that goes on gives it a very divine, halo-like fell. The garden in black and white is a good way to see it anew.
Really good point on leaving stalks and stems intact. I've always left seedheads for the birds, but never thought about the butterflies or other insects.
Excellently said Benjamin. My garden looks beautiful most of the winter with all its stalks still in place. The gardenchat conversation moves way too fast for me on Twitter. gail
K--Tree frogs overwinter in leaf litter, and they eat skeeters! Wooly worms, swallowtails, solider beetles, bumble bees, mason bees--all depend on litter to survive!
G--Yes, Twitter makes me dizzy every day. I used TweetDeck and was looking at 4 columns of tweets. :( The winter garden is, in its own way, gorgeous. Live the seasons fully and you live life fully! I want cross country skis if I ever get an acreage.
I enjoy your blog a great deal, but I thought this post was particularly good.
Leaving the perennials and grasses uncut until spring - who would WANT to cut them, once they understand what's going on overwinter? It makes work when most gardeners are ready to rest and it decreases the health of the garden!
The more I learn about the insects, many of whom overwinter in dead stems or leaf litter, the more fascinated I become. The life cycles and inter-dependencies are intricate and never ending.
GG--You make a great point about being tired at the end of the season. I know I am. Come spring I can't wait to get out and work, which fits perfectly with all the wildlife needed winter homes. We must be careful to preserve interdependence and redundancy in our gardens so life thrives while it can. (and thanks for the compliment!)
I like this post. It's pretty much what I do too, with variations, but comforting to know you and others take the same approach. I really enjoyed Sleep, Creep, Leap too.
James--And yet I think a very good number of gardeners don't do this, which is why 500 jaws dropped in my garden this past June. I am pleased to know you enjoyed my book (and thankful for your purchase)--any specific comments or caveats? You don't have to, just trying to figure out my chances with a real press.
I will unbend enough to give plants TWO shots at the garden, since I've lost a couple to purely poor placement on my part, who have later thrived elsewhere. But that's as far as I go. If it dies the second time, I see no point in prolonging all of our miseries.
Love this post. I just stumbled on your blog after following a friend from Facebook, and I love your pictures as well as your writing. And i especially love you giving me logical, practical reasons for not cleaning up my gardens in the fall. The chrysalis line alone was worth the read. Great blog and I'll be back.
Ursula--You're kinder than me! :)
Barb--Pleasure to meet you, and honored by your comment. Have you read Doug Tallamy's Bringing Nature Home?
All great stuff.
Just a thought re chucking your seeds out of your car window. All native species develop local variations, which may be distinctive and important. Or just distinctive.
Not reallysure we should go around hybridising them..
Anne--I toss the seed out within a mile of my house, more like 1/2 mile. So, I think I'm ok?
Anne--Of course, all these plants I have come from who knows where, so hybridizing is gonna happen anyway.
Could be - I'm not sufficiently expert to really know!
I don't know if I told you that even though I have compost piles, the compost isn't always ready when I want some. After reading about you using the city compost, and seeing it at some neighbors' yard, I talked Larry into getting some for the front area this spring. I hope to get more next spring.
I noticed some snall swallowtail caterpillars on my parsley the other day, and wondered if they were going to have time to mature. I didn't realize they overwintered as chrysalises. Hey, that didn't turn red, so I must have used the right plural. :o)
I always leave my plants up until spring, too.
Sue--That city compost is very good stuff, I'm very pleased with it!
I have small bst too, like 3rd instar at most. It hasn't grown in two weeks, so I think it's goner--nowhere near big enough to overwinter yet! Sad.....
Loved your post. Nothing better than letting nature take care of the garden. I love having the birds enjoy the garden and take seeds throughout the winter.
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