Be­ing a lazy gar­dener

Maryland Independent - - Sports - Jamie Drake

We teach our kids that hard work and per­se­ver­ance pay off. “Git ‘er done” is one phrase my kids hear a lot around our house whether we’re talk­ing about do­ing home­work, putting away the laun­dry, or emp­ty­ing the dish­washer. At our house, as I’m sure at yours, no one thinks lazi­ness is a good trait.

Out­doorsy folks are some of the most hard­work­ing peo­ple out there, and se­ri­ous gar­den­ers are no ex­cep­tion. They build cold frames to get a jump start on the grow­ing sea­son and get a slight edge on mother na­ture. They have com­post piles and spe­cial­ize in amend­ing the soil “just so” to get the most veg­eta­bles or blooms. If you know a good gar­dener (or are one), you know they spend ev­ery chance they get out­side, toil­ing to make their gar­den a lit­tle bit bet­ter.

But some­times it’s okay for a gar­dener—even prefer­able— to let things just be.

Theresa Nelsen, a Mary­land Mas­ter Gar­dener for the past three years who vol­un­teers out of the Univer­sity of Mar yland ex­ten­sion of­fice in La Plata, ad­vises gar­den­ers in South­ern Mary­land on all things green. She says it’s okay to be “lazy” when it comes to clean­ing up our nat­u­ral spa­ces in the fall. In fact, a lit­tle lazi­ness can be ben­e­fi­cial to lots of crea­tures that rely on our gar­dens for food and pro­tec­tion in the cold months. And be­ing lazy will free up some spare time, a rare com­mod­ity these days, for more worth­while pur­suits.

Leaves are start­ing to fall and many of us are dread­ing the Sisyphean task of rak­ing them up over the next few weeks. Ac­cord­ing to Nelsen, the lazy gar­dener ap­proach re­lies more on let­ting the lawn mower mulch them up, leav­ing them on the lawn to de­com­pose and nat­u­rally fer­til­ize the grass. Less rak­ing is cer­tainly some­thing I can sup­port.

Or, if you pre­fer, the chopped up leaves and grass clip­pings can be used to start a com­post pile. The lazy gar­den­ing method re­lies less on syn­thetic fer­til­izer which has to be ap­plied fre­quently, and in­stead fo­cuses more on en­rich­ing the soil with com­post and slow-re­lease or­ganic fer­til­iz­ers. Less fer­til­izer run­ning free keeps the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay and its trib­u­taries cleaner and health­ier. And, the savvy fish­er­man knows the best place to look for the fresh­est and most ro­bust worms is the bot­tom of the com­post pile.

As a gen­eral rule, lazy gar­den­ers also don’t cut down ev­ery­thing in their gar­den in the fall. Many of us re­move all the dead stalks from plants past their prime in the gar­den or till it all over in the fall. But Nelsen says leav­ing 6-12 inches of the stalks from hol­low-stemmed peren­ni­als can be ben­e­fi­cial to in­sects. The seed heads on plants pro­vide food for birds in the win­ter, and will af­ford the lazy gar­dener ex­cit­ing bird-watch­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties in a nat­u­ral set­ting. As an added bonus, what­ever seeds aren’t eaten will be­come new plants in the spring.

The leaves that get caught in the stems at the crown on the plant can pro­vide pro­tec­tion for over­win­ter­ing bugs and can even help in­su­late the plants from se­vere cold weather. If the last two win­ters are any in­di­ca­tion of what’s to come in 2017, leav­ing some in­su­la­tion for our plants is a mighty good idea.

Wildlife loves messy gar­dens, but some­times home­own­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tions don’t share the same view. Drop­ping your plant de­bris on the edge of the woods, if pos­si­ble, would be the neigh­borly thing to do for all the ben­e­fi­cial in­sects that call your gar­den home. That way, if any­thing is cut down that has eggs or a chrysalis on it, hope­fully those crit­ters will still sur­vive in the brush pile.

Some of the but­ter­flies that live in our re­gion don’t com­plete their life cy­cle be­fore the win­ter sets in. Pat Biles, a Mary­land Mas­ter Gar­dener in Charles County for the past eight years, says quite a few species of but­ter­flies over­win­ter here in Mary­land. They can spend the win­ter in their chrysalises, or even as cater­pil­lars. But, she says, they need that leaf lit­ter or curled leaves on the host plants to pro­vide win­ter pro­tec­tion. In some cases, some species can even over­win­ter as but­ter­flies, with a nat­u­ral anti-freeze run­ning through their bod­ies to keep them from freez­ing.

Be­fore we left for my sis­terin-law’s wed­ding in South Carolina, my kids and I no­ticed a half-dozen spiky black cater­pil­lars munch­ing on the pan­sies in the planters on the front porch. They are the lar­vae of the var­ie­gated frit­il­lary, a pretty or­ange and black but­ter­fly that is one of the lat­est species ac­tive in Mary­land. Those cater­pil­lars grew quite plump over the course of sev­eral days and we were hop­ing to find some chrysalises when we re­turned. But upon close in­spec­tion, just one cater­pil­lar re­mains and there are no pu­pae to be seen.

I’m hop­ing those cater­pil­lars found a safe haven some­where in my gar­den to hun­ker down in their chrysalises. They still have time to emerge as but­ter­flies be­fore the grow­ing sea­son is com­pletely over. But for all the but­ter­flies in their var­i­ous stages that need shel­ter in the up­com­ing months, like the swal­low­tails and mourn­ing cloaks, I’m go­ing to heed the ad­vice of Nelsen and Biles and not feel the least bit guilty about be­ing a lazy gar­dener this fall.

One clean-up duty that shouldn’t be over­looked when do­ing the fall yard work, though, is clean­ing out the bird­houses. Now is a very good time of year to take out this past sea­son’s nest­ing ma­te­ri­als and san­i­tize the interiors of your bird­houses. Barbara Whip­key from Wild Birds Un­lim­ited in Lexington Park says the best way to clean your bird­houses is to re­move and dis­pose of all the nest­ing ma­te­ri­als and scrub the in­sides with a di­luted so­lu­tion of bleach, one part bleach to nine parts water. Rinse them with water, and then let the bird­houses dry in the sun be­fore putting them up again.

Don’t wait un­til the spring to clean out your bird­houses. Some birds be­gin nest­ing very early, and by then it’s too late. And clean­ing them out now will make them ideal places for birds that can use them as roosts or shel­ter dur­ing the cold win­ter months. You might even find some birds us­ing the houses as stor­age for their win­ter stash of nuts and seeds.

This year I’m go­ing to do less in the yard and en­joy watch­ing the leaves blow, the birds cache their stores of food for the win­ter, and the last of the but­ter­flies flut­ter through the yard. Nelsen en­cour­ages peo­ple to use the time freed up by not do­ing un­nec­es­sary chores for en­joy­ing their gar­dens, ob­serv­ing the re­la­tion­ships be­tween the plants and in­sects, birds and other wildlife that are linked to­gether in the web of life. So this fall, in­stead of fo­cus­ing on re­mov­ing ev­ery last leaf from your yard, en­joy the chang­ing of the sea­sons and all that fall has to of­fer.

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