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Putting Your Garden to Bed...Or Not

Before I moved to Nantucket I had never heard of ‘putting your garden to bed.’  My childhood gardens were mostly vegetable gardens and I guess the idea of putting them to bed for the winter didn’t occur to us, as we cleaned up the rows of harvested veggies as the season went along.  My grandmother had perennial gardens, and they got cleaned up in early spring.  Tips of spent perennials stuck up through the snow drifts and the weight of the melting snow crushed them down to the ground as the winter progressed.  We raked up the dead stuff on the first beautiful day in April, and things started to grow. Simple.

But when I moved here, I was surprised to see home gardens all cleaned up, tidied and raked before the leaves were completely off the trees. Apparently, this was the expectation of some home owners. Neat and tidy.  No messes.  Indeed, some gardeners still do that, employing crews right up until the ground freezes.  The gardens are zipped up tight, not a leaf out of place, all the stems of the phlox cut to precisely the same height, grasses divided, hydrangeas pruned, and every trace of annuals long composted.  Nothing left to see but soil and mulch.

From a practical standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with that. The weather in the spring on Nantucket is notoriously cold with winter turning to summer sometime in late June or early July.  This makes early-season gardening less than comfortable, the deeply angled sun doing little to warm our bundled bodies. The more clean-up that gets done in the fall, the less there is to do in the spring.

But this clean up method comes with a cost.  Our gardens have an important role in supporting wildlife by providing refuge for creatures large and small. Native plants and carefully chosen annuals and perennials will provide seeds for birds who brave Nantucket winters.  Native bees settle into tree bark or the hollow stems of ornamental grasses and certain perennials. If we remove all the plant material by cutting them all back, it removes winter habitat for these important pollinators.  Of course, having lots of insects in the garden also provides lots of food for birds, too.

Plenty of butterflies use leaf litter or even leaves that are still hanging from plants as a place to shelter or make their chrysalises for the winter. If we attack our gardens to clear them out for winter, we eliminate overwintering sites for these pollinators.  

As a defender of wildlife (except the deer that like to trespass in our yard to eat stuff) it’s enough for me to know that by  not putting my garden to bed in October, I’m providing a little refuge for chickadees and other winter birds, and for butterflies that will later help pollinate my garden.  However, there is another big reason to leave at least part of the garden alone to make the journey through the winter.  And that is that there is much beauty to be found in the winter garden.  Tall stalks of sunflowers and gone-to-seed cosmos will often have agile little birds holding on, swaying in the wind, as they snack on the seeds you’ve left behind.  Red Ilex and purple Callicarpa berries on bare twigs provide food for birds, and a dose of color when other things get drab.  Light snow will outline the twists and curves of shrubs that are left un-pruned.  Shimmering frost will catch the sun, making me stop to take a second look. 

Postponing our garden’s clean-up is a windfall for the wildlife living there. Some things have been cut back, but much is still there. In fact, 5 rose bushes, the pineapple sage, and a couple buddleias are still blooming, and I'm just going to leave them this fall.  If the winter winds and snow don’t knock everything down, I’m sure the dogs will.  We will rake it all up in April or May and we will start again.