Gardenwise: Love It And Leave It

Pictured Above: This photo of Japanese forest grass is pretty enough to grace the front of a holiday card. | Janet Draper photo

by Susan Tito

Now that fall cleanup is in full swing, it’s time to assess how you get things done in the garden. Are you knocking yourself out by trying to cut back and remove every last depleted bloom and dried-out plant stalk? Are you so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task that you are contemplating hiring a landscape company to do the dirty work? If you answered “yes” to either question, it’s time to rethink your cleanup routine, if for no other reason than retaining your sanity.

To be clear, I am not advocating abandoning all garden cleanup chores. Leaves piling up on the lawn need to be raked and dead annuals removed, not to mention you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor next year if you continue to yank any weeds you see this year. 

Instead, change your attitude about fall cleanup. That’s what Janet Draper, a horticulturist at the Smithsonian Institution’s Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, did. 

Ornamental millet, a popular annual in the autumn garden, provides nutritious seeds for some bird species, so refrain from discarding it after the season.  | Susan Tito photo

“I was only honoring plants when they are young and vigorous, something akin to the fashion industry only seeing young women as beautiful. I revered only the vibrancy and not the aging process,” she said. 

She credits acclaimed landscape designer Piet Oudolf with opening her eyes to a new gardening mind-set. “Piet helped me see that there is beauty in all stages of a plant’s life if you just slow down and look. It is a paradigm shift of how we define a garden and beauty — and something that I often need to defend as a public gardener.”

To be sure, garden designers always plan for winter interest — what you see when nothing is in bloom. Evergreens are an obvious antidote to the winter garden blues but so are some perennial species, which can be equally alluring, owing to their upright or mounded forms and attractive seed pods and seed heads. 

Some fruit-eating bird species, such as the cedar waxwing (shown here on a multiflora rose), enjoy rosehips.  | Jesse Gordon photo/Audubon Photography Awards

Which perennials should you postpone cutting back until the spring? Probably more than you realize! Here is a short list and why they work so well in the winter landscape:

• Blue false indigo and Siberian iris, both of which have attractive seed pods
• Coneflower, black-eyed Susan and oxeye sunflowers, for their intriguing seed heads
• Hellebores, which look great mounded with snow
• Ornamental grasses, which are great structural plants and create a dramatic feel with their plumes
• Joe Pye weed, some sedum species and small globe thistle, which have lovely flower clusters that glisten under frost.

Now that she has lightened up on her fall cleanup duties, Ms. Draper said she is amazed at how lively her garden is when she allows her garden to be a bit more “rambunctious” through all seasons.

Birds seeking shelter from the cold made a heart-shaped hole in the snow mounded atop this boxwood. Lovebirds? | Janet Draper photo

You will be, too. The key is to just embrace a bit of messiness.

Aesthetics aside, there is an even greater reason to resist cutting back certain perennials: The seeds and stems are used by native animals as a source of food and shelter in the winter.

“Birds eat the seeds and fruit from these plants, especially when there is snow cover, and the stems usually can be found standing above the snow on bleak winter days,” said Joy Cirigliano, an ecosystem and native plant specialist and consultant for Audubon New York. “In addition, the hollow stems of some perennials, especially those in the Aster family, become hibernariums for overwintering pollinator and other insect larvae, pupae and adults.”

This blue darner dragonfly has a found a perfect place to rest atop a blazing star stem. |  Joy Cirigliano photo

For nature lovers, few things are as rewarding as seeing wildlife live off your land. For many years, I’ve enjoyed watching American goldfinch flitting about my spent black-eyed Susan plants, gorging themselves on the seed. And where there are plants, there are sheltering protein-rich insects, which make a great meal for foraging bird species, such as cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, robins, cardinals and blue jays.

In a nutshell, when we “clear our gardens in fall and throw our garden refuse out, we are getting rid of so much more than just dead plants,” said Ms. Cirigliano. “Is it any wonder that our wildlife is in decline? A lot of their food is in the local landfill!”

Many people and organizations are jumping on the messy garden bandwagon. A recent Habitat Network collaboration between The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and The Nature Conservancy ran a “lazy gardener” campaign that resulted in nearly 5,000 people pledging to leave their gardens messy until spring. 

If more people took a similar pledge, just imagine how many birds, insects and other wildlife would be thrilled to bless our garden mess with their presence! 


Susan Tito
Susan Tito

Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Communicators International. She can be reached at stito630@gmail.com.

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