In the Garden: Mess or MUST?

This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on  February 1, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments and find working links to other stories.

It might not look like Martha’s place, but is it a good thing? (Bidens alba)
It might not look like Martha’s place, but is it a good thing? (Bidens alba)

Garden cleanup can sometimes be a touchy subject.  Some people just can’t tolerate any type of dead branches, leaves or signs of untidiness. But, if you are a neatnik, you are doing a disservice to much of our fauna.  Please don’t roll your eyes at those of us who choose to leave this type of habitat.

Oh, the butterflies and bees will still come to your perfect flower blooms, but what about dragonflies who like to land on spent branches or seed heads?  What about birds looking for a choice of seeds and tasty insects at the same meal…or looking for building materials?  What about beneficial snakes and cute bunnies that need brush to escape predators?  Neatness counts in penmanship, but not when it comes to nature.

Dragonflies rely on dead branches as landing stations
Dragonflies rely on dead branches as landing stations
The subject of garden cleanliness has been touched upon in these pages several times, but it can’t be spoken about too often, and there are solutions.

I myself am sometimes torn between seeing straggly plants at the end of the season and a place that would make the pages of a gardening magazine.  At this time of year it is a particular struggle for me, but then I look out the window and see a cardinal in the massive mess of overgrown and spent sections of Bidens alba and I get a warm feeling that I am doing right by nature.

Here’s the other side of that Bidens above. I get to watch birds such as this female cardinal. Sometimes they stay for 10 minutes or more gleaning seeds and insects
Here’s the other side of that Bidens above. I get to watch birds such as this female cardinals. Sometimes they stay for 10 minutes or more gleaning seeds and insects
Ok, often it is not practical to keep the mess on the plants and it is coming to the time of year when I have to make the decision to remove the deadness to let new life appear and let the perennials renew themselves.  So, here is what you can do to make the best of the situation.  BRUSH PILES!  DRIED BOUQUETS!  MULCH!

The mockingbird seems confused by the dead bouquet but still ate seeds from it
The mockingbird seems confused by the dead bouquet but still ate seeds from it
I’m slowly gathering the spent seed heads of the goldenrod, red root, bluestem grasses and making them into bouquets which I tie together with a cut section of the grapevines that are renewing and getting a little out of hand, so need to be cut back. Placed on the platform feeder, the birds are enticed.

Would this hognose snake be available if he didn’t have some sense of security in the form of undergrowth?
Would this hognose snake be available if he didn’t have some sense of security in the form of undergrowth?
I’ve started pulling out some of the real old growth of Bidens which quickly renews and the fresh growth has a more compact, neater look for spring.  But am I tossing the remains for trash pickup?  NO!  I’m layering it along side the fence where it is still accessible to the birds and now will help out the snakes, land turtles and others that like a cool cover when it starts heating up around here.  The leaves are being gathered and spread around the trees to break down and give them a meal, and to make a place for wolf spiders and other beneficials to set up shop.

This bunny is grateful for a place to hide from predators
This bunny is grateful for a place to hide from predators
I also add some to my brush pile that sits far back on the property where I also add the grapevines that I have cut to keep in check and any branches that didn’t survive the winter.  I’m often afraid to look at just who all lives inside that pile, but I know my English setter is intrigued.

What have we got in here?**
What have we got in here?**
So, there, you have the solution.  Give up a hidden section in the back of your garden for a brushpile.  It’s one of the best things you can do to provide habitat; it will even break down and return nutrients to the soil.  Rake those leaves UNDER a tree and put a dried bouquet on a platform feeder.  The birds will think it’s date night and hey, its FREE!  You can’t get any better than that!

** No creature was harmed in this encounter, except for a scratch on the doggie’s face 😉 (serves him right!)

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