At this time of year, when we are about to be deluged by garden catalogs, it’s time to take stock of this year’s garden and do some serious planning for next season. What do you want your garden to be, and what steps can you take to move it in that direction? (One of the best things about being a serious gardener, I think, is that a garden is never, ever finished.)
If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably interested in gardening more sustainably, in adding native plants, and in attracting wildlife. So based on those goals, here are some things to consider as you plan for next year:
Are there lots of insects in your garden? Insects are the basis of the animal food chain: lots of insects means lots of birds; lots of pollinating insects means lots of seeds and fruit. The garden should look alive with insects, especially on a warm, sunny day. If it doesn’t look like that, here’s what you can do:
— stop using pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Pesticides kill all insects, bumblebees, ladybugs, and butterflies as well mosquitoes and Japanese beetle larvae. Fungicides kill the most important decomposers in the garden, and herbicides have been shown to be harmful to animals as well as plants. The vast majority of insects are beneficial. There are much less harmful ways to address the very few that aren’t than blasting them with chemicals.
— plant native species instead of alien and hybridized plants. Sure, natives are beautiful and easy to grow, but the real reason for planting them is that they are a necessary part of our ecosystem. Everyone knows about monarchs and milkweed: monarch caterpillars can eat only milkweed. But many, many insects are that specific: skippers need native grasses, fritillaries need violets, spicebush swallowtails need spicebush (no surprise there). The list goes on and one. The best way to ensure a natural, sustainable ecosystem is to plant a wide variety of native plants.
Is the garden lively in all seasons? We tend to be outdoors only in the warm months, but birds and other wild creatures are outside all year, and they need food and shelter. And I’m not referring to bird feeders. Even without them, my garden is full of birds all year round, and we see more birds in winter than in summer. Here’s how to ensure a plentiful supply of food for wild creatures throughout the year:
— plant for all seasons: with planning, you can supply fruit and seed throughout the year and flowers from late March through October or November. Early-fruiting native trees like birches are important food sources for birds and small mammals; trees and shrubs that hold their fruits through the winter, like hollies and some crab apples, fill in the other end of the year. Many birds search for insects in tree bark throughout the winter, not just in the warm months. A row of evergreens supplies shelter from winter storms.
— clean up the garden in spring, not in fall. Standing grasses and perennials supply both food and shelter throughout the winter; if you concentrate on planting pure species rather than cultivars or hybrids, your plants will produce seed for you as well as for wildlife.
— leave the leaves. Ground-feeding birds will energetically sift through the leaf litter beneath my plants all winter. Why? Because many insects overwinter in the leaf litter. If you keep your leaves and use them as mulch, you will see more birds throughout the winter and more butterflies and moths next season.