I just signed the easiest pledge I’ll ever sign.
I vowed to the folks at Habitat Network that I would be a “Lazy Gardener” and leave my garden messy for wildlife this winter.
It appeals to my lazy side, but also it makes good sense. We work hard all year to grow a garden that attracts pollinators, butterflies, birds and more. And then, come winter, why would we just cut it down and rake it all away?
Don’t, says Habitat Network.
The network, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy, is a citizen science project looking into the impact that urban and suburban wildlife corridors have on the lives of birds and other critters.
The Lazy Gardener pledge is one program of many designed to improve habitat for wildlife. By leaving your garden messy with overgrown grasses, dried flower stalks and berries, you provide food and cover for animals year round.
Some pollinators nest under the leaves and some spend the winter inside the dried plant stalks. More insects and seeds in your yard also provides more winter food for smaller mammals and birds.
When I signed the pledge, not only did I sign up for less work, I also signed up for Habitat Network’s Monthly News. It is full of tips on how not to work in the garden, along with other ideas for enhancing habitat for wildlife.
Trista Imrich, owner of Wild Works of Whimsy in Virginia Beach, alerted me to the Lazy Gardener pledge with an email saying, “Love this!” She added a smiley face for emphasis.
I don’t think of Imrich as a messy gardener. Her beds of native plants and vegetables in Virginia Beach’s Alanton neighborhood always look trim and beautiful. So I asked her how she fulfilled the pledge. Just look behind her flowerbeds and you will see her “mess,” she said.
Imrich tries not to cut back seed heads on her plants. If they are really in the way, she will cut them and lay them at the back of her flower beds so if any bees hibernated in the stalks they could still emerge in spring. She also moves fallen branches to the back of her beds rather than throwing them away.
“I rake all my leaves and pine needles into the beds and leave them,” she said. “We hold off on mowing some out of the way areas along the perimeter of the backyard, where we know we’ve seen turtles, etc.”
Tom Houser, senior horticulturist at Norfolk Botanical Garden, said he has been a lazy gardener in his own Kempsville yard for several years and can attest to its success.
“I can’t say enough” Houser said, “about how much a difference leaving the spent flower heads on my plants, and leaving everything up has made in increasing the insect and bird diversity in my yard.”
Birds use the garden for cover, he said, and hunt for seeds and insects. He said he has grown to like the structure of some browned-out plants like joe-pye weed and ironweed.
Houser waits until March when he sees new growth emerging before he cleans up his “mess.” Cleanup is much easier in late winter, too, he explained.
“From a labor-saving perspective, by March I can reach down and just pull or knock over about 90 percent of my plants – no crawling around with pruners cutting individual stems,” he said. “I then take the waste, throw it into the middle of the yard and make a couple of passes over it with my mulching mower.
“Voila! No bags,” Houser added. “Everything goes back into the soil.”
He cautions that he is less messy in the front yard. Though he still leaves some things standing over the winter, he tries to keep things more traditional for the sake of his neighbors.
Who can argue with all that advice? Less work is a good thing. I just changed my Facebook profile and added the Lazy Gardener seal to my photo. Check out their Facebook page where a lazy gardener relaxes in a hammock in the midst of her wonderful wild garden.
Next year that’s gonna be me in that hammock.
Have you come across a surprise or puzzle in nature? Do you have a tidbit of local lore? Share your stories and sightings with columnist Mary Reid Barrow,firstname.lastname@example.org.