Tidy is the Enemy of Good.

So, I was listening to the first episode of the second season of Roots, Wings, and Other Things podcast with Jez Rose and Adam Frost (of Gardener’s World fame). Their guest was Frances Tophill (also of Gardener’s World fame) and through their chat, Frances said something about guerilla gardening and showing that its okay to have gardens that aren’t perfect, perfectly manicured, perfectly tidy. Because, after all, environmentally speaking tidy is the enemy. But we’ve all been trained to think an untidy garden is bad/unkempt/unloved or just tended to by a lazy gardener.

I felt so seen! Both because I want our garden to be environmentally beneficial (as well as beautiful) and I also think that any time I see weeds or leftover dead stuff or I slack on deadheadding it means I am lazy and I chide myself for not being a better gardener.

What a load of rubbish… I’m a perfectly fine gardener! And I’m a great environmentalist because I do leave some of that stuff laying around and I don’t whack everything down come fall. All of these things are tiny habitats for all the bugs that sustain the birds, skinks, skunks, toads, and other creatures that call our garden home.

Don’t you love it when your lazier tendencies fall in line with doing the right thing?

All joking aside, I do think it is a really great reminder that an overly tidy garden, while it is absolutely what we’ve been trained to aspire to, is a sort of ecological tourist destination. Think Wisconsin Dells, Orlando, or Pigeon Forge (though, no shade to anyone who lives there, promise!). Its built for visitors (bees, butterflies, and other mobile things) but not built for the long haul… not somewhere you raise your family as it were (again, no shade). Leaving things to lay, be it branches or leaves, creates all those tiny micro-habitats for creepy-crawlies and other invertebrates (and even some vertebrates) to get on with the business of life, thereby improving your soil and creating an endless buffet of tasty treats for the more visible of garden denizens.

What does this really mean, in practice, then? Well for starters it definitely means not tidying up before winter (especially if you are in a super cold location like us) and leaving those stems, branches and leaf litter in its place to protect any number of creatures from that brutal cold. Happily, I can say this is a think we’ve always done. Partly out of time constraints as fall is always super busy for us and early spring is too full of energy, so cleaning up in spring just makes logical sense for me.

Big Bluestem in winter.

It also means that when you do clean up last year’s dead material, you leave a bit of it in place. Right now I’m thinking about how I can leave some old Big Bluestem stems stacked up under where the Baptisia grows. It’ll make great habitat and the foliage of the Baptisia will hide it, come peak season, so that it won’t be seen as an eyesore to visitors. This also means using dead material as mulch whether that be leaving it in place or composting it and using it as mulch (instead of things like gravel or bark).

I love how these daffodil sprouts break right through the leathery, dead oak leaves… leaf litter won’t smother your perennials!

What else can you do (aside from being lazy)? You can create a range of habitats that will suit a variety of insects. A pond is an obvious (but labor intensive and expensive) choice, but leaving some grass tall and unmowed is a really cheap and easy (lazy) way to help. So is leaving some bare dirt for solitary mining bees. Or planting a small patch of prairie. Even just adding in a small wood-pile or a few stumps. But ensuring your garden isn’t a sea of sameness means you’ll have a wider diversity of bugs to call your space home- meaning more birds, more butterflies, more of all the good things an environmentally conscious garden can bring.

Our unmowed hillside after 5 years. Look at all that diversity! Everything from milkweed, asters, pine, and oak trees!

And whether or not you classify yourself as an organic gardener (but seriously, its time to put the Sevin away), it is essential to get better at bug identification. I’m always loathe to squash a bug if I don’t know what it is! What if it is rare or helpful and I just crushed it under my flip flop? The horror! I love the internet for bug identification! I use a number of sources (Bug Finder is a favorite), but it has been invaluable to us identifying a stunning Tiger Beetle that we now cherish and go out of our way to provide for- rather than relying on my fearful initial identification of an Emerald Ash Borer.

Image result for tiger beetle vs emerald ash borer
Emerald Ash Borer (left) vs. Tiger Beetle (right)- Image via The Town Line Newspaper

Knowing exactly what the bug is means you can be smart about how to manage it, if its a bad bug, or you can learn what brought the beautiful good bug to your yard and how you can keep it. So many of these resources online do more than simply ID the bug, they can tell you what they eat, what their range is, how many hatches they have in a year, so much!

So, dear readers, I’d love to know what you currently do to make your garden more environmentally friendly and what you would like to do more of? And will you be able to resist the urge to make your garden oh-so-tidy?

I’ve included some links here to articles I thought were helpful in attracting and keeping insects in your garden. These have a whole bunch of great ideas that might be easily applied to your own garden:

Brooklyn Botanical Garden- How to make your garden a haven for insects.

Amateur Entomologists’ Society- Gardening for insects.

One final note, I’ve mentioned this before, but an easy way to preempt any snide comments from neighbors, garden visitors, or passers by as to your unmowed lawn or newly-sown prairie, or gasp, your non-tidy garden is to post a sign as to your goal. We’ve gotten SO MUCH attention for our Butterfly Waystation sign and Certified Wildlife Habitat signs and it tells them, when we can’t, why our yard looks different from everyone else’s. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll give them the idea to do the same!

5 thoughts on “Tidy is the Enemy of Good.”

    1. Thank you! I adore the hawk moth and got SO excited when it graced us with its presence! I think it is so important to make good choices not just for pollinators but for all the critters. Heaven knows the farm fields surrounding us are no home for them- it brings both of us a lot of joy knowing we are creating habitat rather than destroying it.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. When my kids were little, my gardens were VERY wildife friendly as I never had the time to clean up in the fall and things always fell behind during the growing season. : ) Later, I had more time and would cut everything down but for a few years now I have let most of the flower stalks and and seed heads hang around all winter. I noticed, too, when I put up a Monarch Waystation sign, I received fewer subtle comments about the abundance of milkweed among the flowers. Your post was very informative and I will extend more care when I clean up in the spring. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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