In the Garden: Mess or MUST?

It might not look like Martha's place, but is it a good thing? (Bidens alba)

It might not look like Martha’s place, but is it a good thing? (Bidens alba)

Garden cleanup can sometimes be a touchy subject.  Some people just can’t tolerate any type of dead branches, leaves or signs of untidiness. But, if you are a neatnik, you are doing a disservice to much of our fauna.  Please don’t roll your eyes at those of us who choose to leave this type of habitat.

Oh, the butterflies and bees will still come to your perfect flower blooms, but what about dragonflies who like to land on spent branches or seed heads?  What about birds looking for a choice of seeds and tasty insects at the same meal…or looking for building materials?  What about beneficial snakes and cute bunnies that need brush to escape predators?  Neatness counts in penmanship, but not when it comes to nature.

Dragonflies rely on dead branches as landing stations

Dragonflies rely on dead branches as landing stations

The subject of garden cleanliness has been touched upon in these pages several times, but it can’t be spoken about too often, and there are solutions.

I myself am sometimes torn between seeing straggly plants at the end of the season and a place that would make the pages of a gardening magazine.  At this time of year it is a particular struggle for me, but then I look out the window and see a cardinal in the massive mess of overgrown and spent sections of Bidens alba and I get a warm feeling that I am doing right by nature.

Here's the other side of that Bidens above. I get to watch to female cardinals. Sometimes they stay for 10 minutes or more gleaning seeds and insects

Here’s the other side of that Bidens above. I get to watch birds such as this female cardinals. Sometimes they stay for 10 minutes or more gleaning seeds and insects

Ok, often it is not practical to keep the mess on the plants and it is coming to the time of year when I have to make the decision to remove the deadness to let new life appear and let the perennials renew themselves.  So, here is what you can do to make the best of the situation.  BRUSH PILES!  DRIED BOUQUETS!  MULCH!

The mockingbird was quite curious about the dead bouquet but ate seeds from it just the same

The mockingbird seems confused by the dead bouquet but still ate seeds from it

I’m slowly gathering the spent seed heads of the goldenrod, red root, bluestem grasses and making them into bouquets which I tie together with a cut section of the grapevines that are renewing and getting a little out of hand, so need to be cut back. Placed on the platform feeder, the birds are enticed.

Would this hognose snake be available if he didn't have some sense of security in the form of undergrowth?

Would this hognose snake be available if he didn’t have some sense of security in the form of undergrowth?

I’ve started pulling out some of the real old growth of Bidens which quickly renews and the fresh growth has a more compact, neater look for spring.  But am I tossing the remains for trash pickup?  NO!  I’m layering it along side the fence where it is still accessible to the birds and now will help out the snakes, land turtles and others that like a cool cover when it starts heating up around here.  The leaves are being gathered and spread around the trees to break down and give them a meal, and to make a place for wolf spiders and other beneficials to set up shop.

This bunny is grateful for a place to hide from predators

This bunny is grateful for a place to hide from predators

I also add some to my brush pile that sits far back on the property where I also add the grapevines that I have cut to keep in check and any branches that didn’t survive the winter.  I’m often afraid to look at just who all lives inside that pile, but I know my English setter is intrigued.

What have we got in here?**  Nothing like a good brush pile!

What have we got in here?**

So, there, you have the solution.  Give up a hidden section in the back of your garden for a brushpile.  It’s one of the best things you can do to provide habitat; it will even break down and return nutrients to the soil.  Rake those leaves UNDER a tree and put a dried bouquet on a platform feeder.  The birds will think it’s date night and hey, its FREE!  You can’t get any better than that!

** No creature was harmed in this encounter, except for a scratch on the doggie’s face ;) (serves him right!)

© 2013, Loret T. Setters. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Well, done, Loret. Accepting some ‘mess’ in the garden is so much easier when we understand its value to the ‘critters’ that add so much to our enjoyment.I especially like, and will use, your idea of dried bouquets. Thanks.
    Betty Hall recently posted..Thirsty robins

  2. says

    Good share, Loret, the idea of bouquets! And brush piles. I am always pleased when I see a bunny has gotten away from Mr. Coyote by hiding in some of my bushes. I am delighted also when the hummingbirds sit on the ends of bare branches watching me in the garden. Many times I’d thought of pruning them off to make things more “pretty”, but they wouldn’t have it! My garden, too, is surrounded by lots of wild land for the critters, so that’s a very good thing for a wildlife garden,
    kathy recently posted..California Teenage Runaway

  3. says

    When I deadhead some of my more aggressive native plants, I toss them into the “wild” area on the property. I don’t need ten thousand camphor pluchea or blood sage, I don’t need any more hyssop, I am packed to the rafters on asters—but if they wanted to reseed there, more power to ‘em. I suspect that the birds are picking a fair number of those seeds out of the pile…
    Ursula Vernon recently posted..The Madness Is Upon Me

  4. says

    I still say my mess is beautiful….I like the ideas for tidying yet still giving back to nature. Mine will remain poking up through the snow as the leaves decompose under with life teeming beneath them…once the earth warms here we clean up and put it in a huge pile in the back of the property…the critters love it.
    Donna Donabella recently posted..Simply The Best Herbs-January

    • says

      We didn’t get a freeze (and I hope they don’t hear me upstairs ) so my bidens didn’t die back like it has in the past where they generally “melt” into the landscape once cold. Luckily they are easily yanked out so that the new seedlings have room. Your snow probably keeps a lot of the little critters snug and protected. I see such interesting activity in “the pile” and I’m sure you do to.
      Loret recently posted..Birds: and what a week it was

  5. Barbara Peterson says

    Our wildlife gardening group has been struggling with overgrown patches of Bidens alba (see top photo on this page) around the visitors center at Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, FL. It is one of the few nectar plants available during the winter months. I like your perspective of redefining beautiful!

    • says

      Hi Barbara, Thanks for stopping by and your kind comment.

      Bidens Alba has become a favorite of mine since I did a video slideshow of Central Florida Butterflies and realized that about 80% were photographed on the Bidens, despite having other offerings around. It truly is the most biodiverse plant in my garden. This morning I watched a marsh rabbit for 15 minutes or more switch munching between pepperweed and the bidens. I guess a little “spicy” is enjoyed by all critters and there are no complaints at this house about the rabbits eating the plants. With bidens you can’t even tell they’ve been there.
      Loret T. Setters recently posted..Freshwater seafood?


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