How to Encourage a Messy Garden

Horticulture Chair Kevin Tepas wants us all to consider not being so neat at this time of year in our gardens.  He cites a new perspective from the Habitat Network: Gardens are havens for wildlife–even at the end of the growing season. Overgrown grassy reeds, dried flower stalks, and shrubby fruit-filled branches provide food, cover, and protection in the fall and winter for animals big and small.  

The organization’s suggestions make a great deal of sense:

Leave your leaves on the property
Allow the gorgeous dried flower heads to stay standing in your garden
Let the grass grow tall and seed
Build a brush pile with fallen branches instead of removing them
Forget the chemicals
Leave snags on your property
Delay garden clean-up until spring, after several 50℉ (10℃) days, which allows overwintering pollinators to “wake-up” for spring and move on

Vital pollinators, such as native bees, may overwinter in your messy garden. Cellophane bees (Colletes inaequalis), will create burrows in the ground to reproduce and ride-out the cold winter months.

Spiders, reptiles, amphibians, rodents, and 96% of all terrestrial birds depend on insects for food (Doug Tallamy); and, an overgrown end of the season garden is great habitat for insects’ meals.

There are around 12,000 different kinds of moths and 865 butterfly species in North America. Many of these lepidoptera such as the mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) may take refuge in your messy garden overwinter.

Several native shrubs and trees produce carbohydrate-fat-fiber-rich fruits that small mammals and especially, birds rely on in the fall and winter. These resources have been found to be essential for migrating birds attempting to keep up their energy reserves for long flights.

Some birds, such as the Savannah Sparrow, require ideal winter habitat as a crucial part of their survival and reproductive success in the spring.

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Note that the Habitat Network includes respected authorities at the Nature Conservancy and the Cornell Lab.