The Beauty of Thoughtful Neglect: Spring Garden Care in the Ecological Garden, Part One

Native wild ginger emerges in April

Why leaves should stay where they are and 
“Chop and drop” tidying 

Back in March, shortly after the Covid-19 shutdown began in Illinois,  I was on a zoom meeting with some other native plant gardeners when we got on the subject of spring clean-up. “What does that even mean in the ecological garden?” someone asked. Should it be called clean-up, when what we’re doing more resembles editing, rearranging, and augmenting, with very little clean-up involved? How does the native plant, pollinator and wildlife-friendly (not to mention soil carbon sequestering) gardener help their plot emerge from winter into the growing season? Because I have had more time at home and in the garden, I began to take notes of what it is I actually do.

We all know what conventional spring clean-up looks like here in the Midwest and across the country. It is exemplified by what occurs in April and May in the townhome complex where my sister resides, ruled by the homeowners’ association and the landscapers they hire to maintain the outdoor property. Even in the midst of the pandemic, the mow, blow and go brigade showed up and bushes such as forsythia and lilacs were so severely trimmed that they didn’t bloom. Pre-emergence herbicides, insecticides and synthetic fertilizers were applied to the lawns along with the grass seed. Leaf blowers roared into action, clearing away any remaining fall leaves missed during fall clean-up, and a heavy layer of mulch laid over the equally heavy layer applied last spring. In short, when they were done the whole place a Playmobile landscape; one almost wonders why they don’t just put in artificial turf and plastic bushes and have done. No wonder very few butterflies, bumble bees, or birds. This is an extreme example of what happens across the US, whether at the hand of individual property owners or the crews they hire. 

Now that it’s spring 

There is a better way. In the ecological garden, spring clean-up, or that period of garden care that occurs in spring, is really part of a cycle, rather than a sharp, clearly delineated phase, and requires a different philosophy of gardening, one founded on ideas of community, reciprocity and relationship rather than dominance and control. I’m not even really sure when it begins or ends, since what happens in spring inevitably depends on what happened last fall. Spring maintenance in future years depends on what the gardener plants this spring, and how the plants have grown together to cover the ground. The process is different for young gardens than for mature ones. In the first, the gardener is adding plants, hoping they’ll grow, making sure the soil in between small young plants is somewhat covered, and hoping for survival, bloom, and reproduction. In the latter, there is less addition and more contemplation of the moves plants have made on their own, more editing and judicious infill. 

Let’s just say you are a beginning ecological gardener, converting an area, large or small, into a native plant-based garden. Last spring, or even several springs ago, you cleared an area in a flower bed or lawn and put in some native plants and perhaps a native shrub or two, with the hopes of attracting birds and pollinators. Miraculously, there appeared some bumble bees and a couple of monarch butterflies, thanks to the milkweed you included. Last fall, with some trepidation, you didn’t remove all the fallen leaves from under your bushes and around the herbaceous plants, nor, on the advice of more experienced gardeners, did you cut down all the dried stalks of plants, but left them standing through the winter. What a mess! All those stalks leaning at crazy angles in the snow, or flattened by early rain storms, not to mention your neighbors giving your property the side-eye. But now the weather is better, there is some green growth striving to come up underneath last year’s remains, and sadly, you notice some weeds such as shepherd’s purse, plantains, or creeping Charlie among the natives. What to do? 

First, to clear up any misconceptions about native-plant gardening, replacing conventional plantings with natives does not mean you can then sit back and take it easy forever after. An ecological garden is just that, a garden that will always require caretaking and maintenance to keep it healthy. (This is also true for many natural areas, but that is a separate discussion.) Proper maintenance involves what has been called “thoughtful neglect,” minimally destructive practices based on ecological principles and geared toward improving ecological function rather than keeping things extremely neat. Lack of proper post-planting care is one of the primary causes for failure in native plant gardens large and small, public and private. Public gardens often do not have a maintenance budget attached and the garden gets turned over to untrained contractors who have no clue as to what they’re dealing with or how to proceed. Private owners may have succumbed to the no-maintenance myth, or lack the necessary information to help make their gardening a success. In either case, the garden gets planted and within a year or two has become a weedy mess. Conversely, loving, or at least attentive treatment every spring will go a long way towards ensuring that the garden will be healthy, beautiful, ecologically functional, yet still look like a garden for years to come. 

Leave the leaves 

Woodland phlox and Virginia waterleaf in May
Hopefully, leaves were left to accumulate where they fell under bushes and trees last fall. In spring, they

 
should simply be left in place. Do not rake or haul out the leaf blower. If there are spring wildflowers emerging, you can take a stick and carefully lift and stir the leaves so that the plants can grow more easily. This layer of leaves is doing a lot of good where it is: as they gently decompose into the soil, they feed all the soil critters and fungi that run the underground biome, and these critters in turn help keep soil and plants healthy. Fallen leaves not only help insulate the soil, helping to shelter dormant plants, but they also protect a large number of creatures that overwinter in the leaves or in burrows just below. These include numerous species of butterfly and moth that overwinter as adults, caterpillars or cocoons. Young queen bumblebees (gynes) dig and spend the winter in small burrows, called hibernacula, below ground, often below the leaf litter. A sure sign of spring is when a queen emerges from the leaves to start hunting for forage and a good nesting site. 

Depending on how large and where the garden is, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals may also be hibernating in hollow logs, in the leaf litter itself, or in dens. Leaf litter remains important in summer, helping to keep soil moist and protected, and many species continue to rely on it for habitat. For example, flightless firefly young overwinter in the soil among the leaf litter. They pupate in mid-to late spring and emerge as adults in summer, delighting us with their flashing lights as they mate. The females then lay their eggs back in the leaf litter where, after hatching, several weeks later, the young emerge to continue the cycle. 

Chop and drop: whys and wherefores

The first step in spring maintenance is to observe, pay attention, and wait. Hopefully, through the winter the seed heads looked somewhat decorative, while providing food for birds and seeds scattered on the ground to grow this spring. Once plants show good green growth, a few inches or so, it is time to trim the dried out stalks. The timing is a judgement call, but in general, patience is wiser and even waiting until mid- to late-May is fine. If the garden is shady and full of spring-blooming flowers, the stalks will be much less noticeable, if present at all. Those plants are softer and shorter; dormant stems and leaves tend to simply decompose into a layer of organic material. Though the ground may be full of fallen leaves, because they have such a short period to leaf out and bloom before the trees do, these plants quickly grow up and obscure the ground. 

May "chop and drop" among prairie plants
Prairie and savanna plants, on the other hand, will require some cutting. Many sun-loving plants are late to emerge, even into May, waiting for the soil to be warm and days long enough to explode into growth. Leaving the stalks over the winter will help the gardener remember where the plants are. I’ve sometimes thought I’d lost certain plants that have then surprised me with their late emergence. In a natural prairie, stalks would just stay standing until decomposed or burned in a controlled burn. Some people do burn their suburban prairie gardens, but that, while it might happen in spring, is beyond the scope of this post. With these tall, sun-loving plants, it’s important to practice “chop and drop” gardening. This is where you cut last year’s stalks to an average of fifteen inches high. This process immediately makes the garden look a little tidier. But why leave that length standing? Because many species of solitary bees and wasps make their home here. Dried out hollow stems are where the females lay their eggs in summer. The following spring, the next generation emerges from these nests. The same goes for raspberry canes: leave some of last year’s canes standing, or cut to about waist height. 

What to do with the bits you’ve cut down? Please do not throw them into landscape bags and put them out to be taken away. That’s good organic, soil-building material you’ve got there, and many of the stalks might be harboring this year’s generation of solitary bees. Some gardeners make tidy piles in obscure corners to allow the stalks to gradually compost. Others simply lay the stalks around on bare soil between plants, sort of a quasi-mulch. This way, if by chance any bees’ nests are in the cut-down parts, they can still emerge and complete their life cycles, and as the stalks decay, they provide food for all the decomposers that live in the soil and help build good soil texture. In addition, they often make useful nesting materials for birds. 

Once everything has been cut this way, the whole garden will be full of stalks sticking out of the ground at rakish angles, but with a more orderly appearance. It is surprising how quickly plants grow up and hide the stalks. 

Coming up 

Are there tricks to keeping weeds at bay in the native plant garden? What is editing and how do you do it? When should native plants be planted? My next post will discuss these topics, before moving into summer care.

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