“Slovenliness is no part of Religion. Cleanliness is indeed close to Godliness,” wrote John Wesley in 1791. Wesley might have known a thing or two about Religion, but he clearly was no wildlife gardener.
Indeed, the pursuit of order and extreme tidiness in gardens is one of the primary factors contributing to a lack of wildlife in modern residential landscapes.
The mowing of grasses, the pruning of perennials, the raking of leaves, and replacement of mulches are all common but deadly gardening practices. For birds, butterflies, bees, and other animals these “clean up” activities quite literally mean death.
Fall is a time when gardeners seem to start feeling antsy, and start looking for something to do. One of the best things you can do in your garden in October and November is nothing: let it be, and enjoy watching it. Underneath those leaves are millions of little decomposing insects working hard to carry organic matter into your soil. Inside the stems of those perennials are dozens of species of caterpillars finding shelter from Winter’s drying winds. Grad a latte, sit, and watch.
If you must do something, then plant more trees and shrubs. While research shows that one of the worst things you can to to a wildlife garden is “tidy it up”, we also knows that one of the best things you can do to encourage wildlife in your garden is to offer a wide variety of woody plants of varying heights and a wide diversity of habitat types (e.g. compost heaps, log piles, leaf litter, long grasses).
And when you are looking for trees and flowers to plant, don’t exclude ones that unsay gardeners consider to be “messy.”
For example, the Unviversity of Tennessee agricultural extension service published a brochure called “Trees to Reconsider Before Planting“. It contains the following gem:
“As they mature, many trees produce seeds and fruits that may be a nuisance to homeowners. Nuts from hickories and walnut, acorns from oaks, sweetgum and sycamore balls are a few of the antagonists. Fleshy fruits from trees such as cherry and crabapple can also be messy and bothersome.”
Of course we know that it is precisely these “antagonists” which are some of the very best plants for wildlife.
Even trees that aren’t considered “messy” in the traditional sense (if they are considered at all) are excellent if untidy trees. Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is a beautiful shade tree, especially in fall when the leaves turn gloriously purple and scarlet. It’s branches, though, sometimes die young leaving decaying openings and a hollow trunk: perfect nesting spots for bees, owls, raccoons, and many other species.
The bottom line is this: when it comes to wildlife gardening, neat is often the enemy of good. A successful garden need not be out of control, but inviting a little of the unexpected will pay great dividends.