Messiness is beautiful

Weeding the Civic Center garden

Habitat gardens like the one in front of the Civic Center can look messy to those of us who grew up with trimmed hedges and bright annuals—until you get to know and appreciate the beauty behind the messiness.

Stewards have been spading around the edges all summer, to keep a clean line between the garden and the surrounding lawn. They’ve removed piles of crabgrass and locust tree sprouts. But as cool weather arrives, and the growing season comes to an end, they won’t be cutting down dying leaves and flower stalks. The reason: hidden among the browning vegetation are seeds and berries and bugs that are part of a complex web of life.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes some of these connections. Seeds and berries from plants like asters, sunflowers, and chokeberries provide food for many birds, both migrants passing through and those that stay all winter. Bees and butterfly chrysalises also may be hiding under leaves, and even some butterflies may spend the winter finding shelter there.

Then there are less obvious connections.  One example: the galls often found swelling the stems of goldenrods, which are created by larvae of certain wasps and beetles. These larvae may be eaten by other kinds of insects. But then, the Cornell blogger writes, “The plot thickens . . . as all the insects are vulnerable to the nondiscriminatory predation of hungry woodpeckers and chickadees harvesting the tender, plump larvae of the fly, wasp, or beetle. These larvae provide a protein and fat-rich treat in the middle of a resource barren winter. Yet another reason to leave our gardens messy—to invite the phenomenal life cycles of glorious galls.”

You can find more advice about “Making Messy Look Good” and other aspects of ecological gardening on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

— Wendy Pollock