Become an Official Lazy Gardener: Leave Your Garden Messy for Wildlife

By Linda Wiggen Kraft
Healthy Planet Green & Growing Editor

There are many kinds of lazy gardeners. Most of us have been lazy gardeners from time to time. But to be an “Official Lazy Gardener” you need to make an online pledge* to the Habitat Network stating you will: “leave your garden messy for wildlife and not clean it up until the spring of 2018.” The Lazy Gardener pledge was developed by the Habitat Network, a joint project of The Nature Conservancy and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

What does it mean to be an “Official Lazy Gardener” in the fall and winter? There are two main components, first leaving your garden “messy” and then not cleaning it up until spring temperatures have reached 50 degrees or more for three or four days. By waiting until these warmer days, the native bees, butterflies, moths and other insects will have time to emerge from their winter stage and move on.

What is the definition of “messy” by the Habitat Network? It means leaving most of the garden flower plant stems uncut so the dried plants are standing upright, leaving leaves on the ground where they fell and having a brush pile made of branches that provide a shelter and home for birds and insects.

Plants with dried seed heads provide winter food for birds. Many native bees and other insects also live in or on the dried plants stems or leaves as eggs, larvae, pupae or adults. They have a type of antifreeze that lets them survive the cold. If dried garden stems are removed the insects are also removed. The exception to this rule is with vegetable debris and perennials plants like phlox that harbor unwanted insects. In these cases get rid of the stems and foliage in hot compost piles before spring.

Leaves that fall from trees often contain the eggs or larvae of butterflies and moths. These insects lay eggs on the leaves of host trees, which are the specific plants that caterpillars need to survive. In the spring the new caterpillars need to be near the host tree’s new leaves in order to eat and survive. These are the insects birds need to feed their young. In our area of the Midwest, oak trees are host plants to 342 species of butterflies and moths.
By removing the leaves that fell near oaks and other trees, these insect populations are diminished.

As for a brush pile, this is a year round place that birds and insects can find shelter and food. The best construction is with large branches on the bottom and lighter ones on top. The pile will decompose providing food for insects and in turn birds. Just keep adding more branches over time.

Spring is the time for clean up, but only after several days of 50 degree weather or warmer. By waiting for the warmer weather, bees and other insects will have time to emerge from their garden winter homes. The insects can move on and old garden growth can be cut back as new spring growth begins.

It may not be possible to be a “messy lazy” gardener for all of your landscape. Small areas of front gardens can have dried plants left standing. Some leaves can be left around trees. The back yard might be where all these practices can take place. The neighborhood standards may need a revision and your garden might be the place to educate and inspire others to become “messy lazy” gardeners who protect and sustain pollinators, birds and other life of a garden.

*Google “Habitat Network Lazy Gardener” for link to their website.

Linda Wiggen Kraft is a landscape designer who creates holistic and organic gardens. She is also a mandala artist and workshop leader. Visit her blog: www.CreativityForTheSoul.com/blog or her website: www.CreativityForTheSoul.com. Call her at (314) 504-4266.