Being a lazy gardener
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.