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Saturday, November 28, 2015

A paradigm shift

To switch my garden paradigm to one that’s more wildlife-friendly, I find that I need to keep catching myself when I fall into familiar routines. One of these is the fall garden clean-up. 

Looks messy, doesn't it?

    Conventional garden wisdom advises pulling out annuals and cutting back perennials in fall to prevent unwanted insects from over-wintering on their leftover stalks. My goal used to be to leave the garden beds clear of above-ground herbaceous plant manifestations during the winter. This was when evergreen shrubs and trees were supposed to carry the aesthetic burden.

Evergreens are supposed to provide winter interest

    This year I planted my insectary garden, intending to attract native insects. In October, without thinking about it, I almost followed my usual practice, which had been to cut the plants to the ground after the first hard frost and then blanket the soil for the winter in a thick layer of compost. Luckily I realized this habit wouldn’t fit the new paradigm.
    Providing shelter for over-wintering insects is part of what I’m trying to do now. This year I’m going to leave the annuals and perennials standing through the winter. I spread compost around them, and I’ll cut them down in spring when new growth is about to start.

Insectary garden under the new plan. Parsley is still green.

    This should help birds as well as insects. Check out Gardening for the Birds: How to Create a Bird-Friendly Backyard, a fascinating book by George Adams. He proposes making gardens that offer food, shelter and nesting sites for native birds. That includes attracting insects for birds to eat. It also means leaving flowers alone when they go to seed, because many provide useful food for birds.
    Following Adams’ directions, I’m leaving seed stalks standing on perennial oxe-eye daisies, asters, goldenrod, and coneflowers, and annual sunflowers, cosmos, snapdragons, zinnias, and black-eyed Susans.
    A lot of these plants have similar-shaped daisy flowers because they are from the same taxonomic family, the Asteraceae. In this group of plants what looks like a single daisy is actually a composite of many smaller flowers. The petals are ray flowers, and the central disc is made up of tiny disc flowers.

Black-eyed Susans gone to seed
Apparently this makes for good foraging for both insects and birds. I’ll be watching to see if I can observe birds feeding on the flower heads during the winter.

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