New Year’s Garden Resolution: Cultivate Untidyness

An "untidy" unlawn of native wildflowers and grasses, each species allowed to grow where it prefers in natural groupings.

An “untidy” unlawn of native wildflowers and grasses, each species allowed to grow where it prefers in natural groupings.

“How can I attract wildlife to my yard?” asked an attendee after one of my recent talks. My answer: “Cultivate untidyness.”

Untidiness does not mean littering your yard with old tires or trash, or letting invasive weeds take over; it means letting at least some of it remain natural– “messy” to some eyes. The compunction to tidy and groom, whether spraying the lawn with pesticides, raking up leaf litter, or pruning shrubs and trees to rigid shapes is not friendly to wildlife.

Biologists talk about diversity in terms of both species diversity, the number and kind of species found in a particular area, as well as structural diversity, the form of the community. A typical yard with lawn, raked flower beds, and specimen shade trees is not diverse by either measurement. It may be tidy, but it provides habitat for very few native species.

Landscaping for wildlife means growing a variety of native or regionally-adapted plants in a natural arrangement that includes diverse shapes, colors, flowers, and fruits, and leaving areas to go natural to provide shelter, cover and food for wildlife of all sorts.

Grasses, shrubs, and trees provide vertical and horizontal diversity along an urban creek.

Grasses, shrubs, and trees provide vertical and horizontal diversity along an urban creek.

It means providing layers: ground covers, grasses and flowers, shrubs, trees of different heights, and vines as “ladders” between them where appropriate. And horizontal diversity as well: openings in woods, meadow areas, shrub or tree islands in open areas, and pathways like dry or wet streambeds connecting the different habitat areas. Strips of plants running between different habitat areas allow small critters a corridor for safe travel.

One way to accustom yourself to cultivating untidyness is to start small: choose an area of lawn that you can replace with a mix of native shrubs, flowers, and wild grasses. By selecting plants that provide different heights and forms, foliage, and flowers with varying blooming times plus an assortment of fruits and seeds, you add interest year round and habitat for wildlife.

A “wild” garden doesn’t have to look sloppy: Arrange the plants to enhance the space they’ll occupy, considering their eventual shape, size, and habit of growth and bloom. Cluster plants for maximum impact by grouping three or five plants of the same species. Place clusters to contrast colors, foliage, and blooming time.

A bumblebee flies toward a Rocky Mountain penstemon flower stalk.

A bumblebee flies toward a Rocky Mountain penstemon flower stalk.

Here in the Southern Rockies, for example, the blue-purple spires of Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon stricta) open wide during the day on tall stalks. Yellow Missouri evening primrose (Oenothera missouriensis), by contrast unfurls its huge flowers in evening not far above ground level, and they wilt in the next day’s sun.

MIssouri evening primrose

MIssouri evening primrose

Flowers of different sorts in different seasons appeal to diverse kinds of pollinators, including native bees, butterflies, beetles, moths, and hummingbirds. Day-flying native bumblebees love Rocky Mountain penstemon, as do swallowtail butterflies. Night-flying hovering hawk moths are lured to Missouri evening-primrose flowers by their sweet scent and moonlight-colored petals.

Resist tidiness: leave organic litter in place to mulch the soil, don’t cut back dead stalks until spring to leave seeds for food, prune thoughtfully, and avoid using pesticides. Mulch shades the soil, keeping it cool on hot summer days and warmer in winter. It holds moisture and decomposes to release nutrients that help plants grow. Dead leaves may hide the cocoons of butterflies; a dense shrub or tree provides camouflage and thermal protection for the tiny nests of hummingbirds.

Viceroy on a fall wildflower, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Texas

Viceroy on a fall wildflower, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Texas

Learn what’s a weed and what’s a native plant. The latter are important for their established relationships with wildlife and other plants; regardless of whether they suit our aesthetics or not, native plants are the backbone of wild communities. The former are unhealthy and disrupt the relationships that make for good wildlife habitat.

Silvery big sagebrush forms the backbone of a mound bed planted with native grasses and wildflowers.

Silvery big sagebrush forms the backbone of a mound planted with native grasses and wildflowers.

Here in the Southern Rockies, for instance, Big Sagebrush (Seriphidium tridentatum) is often called a weed. But this tough and fragrant native shrub is an integral part of western landscapes and is essential to the survival of many native species, including pronghorn, sage thrashers, sagebrush lizards, and two species of sage-grouse.

Tumbleweed (Salsola tragus), on the other hand, is a true weed, an annual native to the steppes of central Asia that crowds out native species, thus eliminating the relationships that sustain insects, birds, and other wildlife.

Rufous hummingbird perches on my kitchen garden gate.

Rufous hummingbird perches on my kitchen garden gate.

Cultivating untidiness takes practice, but it’s worth the effort. As Ken Druse points out in The Natural Habitat Garden, if every one of American’s estimated 38 million gardeners landscaped just one-tenth of an acre for wildlife, it would equal 3.8 million acres of wildlife habitat. Make a New Year’s resolution to cultivate untidyness and provide wildlife habitat in your yard!

© 2013, Susan J. Tweit. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
About Susan J. Tweit

A plant ecologist who has studied grizzly bear habitat, wildfire behavior, and sagebrush communities, Susan J. Tweit grew up rescuing wildflowers from development sites and picking up roadkill to stash in the freezer for study. After "evolving" into an award-winning writer, speaker, and teacher, Tweit began collaborating with her husband, sculptor Richard Cabe, to design "living landscapes" that restore our connection to nature in our everyday landscapes, from industrial areas to city parks and private gardens. She writes for magazines from Audubon to Popular Mechanics, and is the "Whole Life" columnist for Zone 4 Magazine . Follow her search for a whole and mindful life on her blog, Walking Nature Home, and check out her books and landscape restoration work on her website.

Comments

  1. Rambling Woods says:

    This is so important especially for a novice gardener like me. We are under such pressure for an english garden look where I live and when we let our section of a pond edge return to common milkweed, asters and goldenrod, we were encouraged to mow it down like everyone else..but we refuse to do it…Michelle
    Rambling Woods recently posted..January 4, 2012…If ever we had proof that our nation’s pollution laws aren’t working, it’s reading the list of industrial chemicals in the bodies of babies who have not yet lived outside the womb~Congresswoman Louise Slaughter

    Reply
    • Benjamin Vogt says:

      OMG. I’m amazed how people will buy flowers for each other to profess love or joy or grief, yet anytime there’s one outside it’s “weed! weed! weed! ack!” We don’t live in England. Put a sign out front that says that. This is not an English ecosystem. I think a flower, one flower in the middle of a lawn, is both the greatest act of kindness and hope as it is one giant middle finger. Can I say that, Susan, in the comments for your post?
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..2012 Garden Picture Redux

      Reply
      • Susan J. Tweit says:

        Benjamin, Can you say that in the comments? Of course! I agree that a flower in a lawn is an act of defiance, whether you see it as a middle finger or what, and also an act of kindness. In a sense to bring native wildflowers and other species back is an act of respect for the landscapes we have adopted as our own. This is North America, and despite the best efforts of the cultures who came here from elsewhere to remake it in the image we hold of our homelands, its wild gifts persist, from the lichens that colonize city buildings to the geese that poop on the lawns of suburban parks, and the coyotes that prowl suburban alleys. You have to admire that kind of persistence, and the lessons it teaches about thriving “against all odds,” as the like to say in Hollywood.
        Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Beginnings and endings

        Reply
    • Susan J. Tweit says:

      Michelle, I am glad that you let the asters and milkweed and goldenrod grow up around your pond edge. You could point out to your neighbors that the meadow look is very English as well. Do you know Catherine Zimmerman’s “The Meadow Project”? (https://themeadowproject.com) Her book and/or video might be useful for you personally and to show off to your neighbors as well…. And of course, this blog and it’s sister blog, Beautiful Wildlife Garden, are tremendous resources. Good luck!
      Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Beginnings and endings

      Reply
      • Rambling Woods says:

        Thank you Susan..I do have Catherine’s book and video and am gradually collecting other books written by or recommended her or on the sister blog. It has been a great help and also encouraging. I don’t think that my neighbor’s want anything other than what looks to be lawn. After 7 years I finally convinced my next door neighbor to stop have her lawn sprayed by agreeing to remove any dandelions that pop up so I took that as a small victory as they do come from our lawn. I have signs around the “meadow” as a “Monarch Watch Waystation” “Pollinator Habitat and one other I can’t think of right now…Michelle
        Rambling Woods recently posted..January 4, 2012…If ever we had proof that our nation’s pollution laws aren’t working, it’s reading the list of industrial chemicals in the bodies of babies who have not yet lived outside the womb~Congresswoman Louise Slaughter

        Reply
        • Susan J. Tweit says:

          Michelle, I think convincing the neighbors to quit spraying is huge, and I love the way you went about it. It takes time to change people’s attitudes. Good for you for working away at it. You never know who you may reach with your signs and your subtle alterations in your yard. Susan
          Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Beginnings and endings

          Reply
  2. Donna@Gardens Eye View says:

    I have come to love untidiness Susan. It actually makes me happy to see my garden humming with life!
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..A New Journey

    Reply
    • Susan J. Tweit says:

      Donna, That’s just it–cultivating untidyness makes all sorts of habitat for all sorts of lives, and as a result, you get the wonderful benefit of, as you say so well, a garden “humming with life”! May your new garden be that way too….
      Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Beginnings and endings

      Reply
  3. Christina Kobland says:

    Good article. The garden pictured in front of the house is to die for.

    Here in PA everyone belittles goldenrod, yet it is one of the most productive plants ecologically.

    Native wildlife gardening saves time, money and guilt.
    Christina Kobland recently posted..A Message From Wildlife To Humans: Our Recommended ‘Do Not Do’ List for 2013

    Reply
    • Susan J. Tweit says:

      Thanks, Christina. That garden is actually the border of a small public garden I designed on a formerly vacant lot owned by the city next to my house. It’s designed to show people what you can do with native and regionally-adapted plants, another way of landscaping besides lawn. It’s interesting that you would use the word “battles” in reference to goldenrod. We fight the natives, and why? Because we are attempting to impose our vision of somewhere on the verdant native landscape. You are so right about native gardening saving time, money and guilt–it’s just healthier at so many levels!
      Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Beginnings and endings

      Reply
  4. Bill says:

    Thank you so much. Untidy does not mean untended. It often means interesting.

    Reply
    • Susan J. Tweit says:

      Exactly, Bill! And much more full of life….
      Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Beginnings and endings

      Reply
  5. Carole Sevilla Brown says:

    What a gift to have that beautiful Rufous Hummingbird stop by for a visit! When we give some thought to what elements birds like this and other wildlife need for their survival, and incorporate that into our gardens, we will be giving something back to wildlife whose habitats we’ve done such a good job of destroying. Wonderful tips for doing that here in this post, Susan :)
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Speaking at Todays Horticulture Symposium at Longwood Gardens

    Reply
    • Susan J. Tweit says:

      Thanks, Carole. The Rufous hummers are around from mid-July to early September. Only the males (this one is a male of the year) and only on their southward migration headed for southern Mexico and Central America for the winter. They harass the other hummers with focused fierceness, claiming every patch of nectar-bearing flowers as their own. I’m always relieved when they head south ;) They are amazing acrobats though.
      Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Beginnings and endings

      Reply
  6. Mark Donahue says:

    I adopted the English Cottage Garden style about 10 years ago. Each year I’ve gotten rid of more and more lawn area. Now my property is about 2/3 garden and 1/3 grass. I hope to be rid of all the grass in the future.
    I keep up a majority of my plants over the Winter. Those not in the know might see it as messy, but In my view it is quite beautiful. I use a lot of Ornamental grasses, and I love their structure in the Winter. Many perennials have interesting seedheads which look neat, and also feed wildlife.
    I keep my garden as free of weeds as possible, and do my best to maintain a clean appearance.
    IMHO, it is quite beautiful all year round. Most everyone who walks by compliments me on my garden, so I’ve never gotten the impression that it really bothers anyone, although I’m sure it does. Those types that love the pristine mowed lawns probably have a slight conniption upon first seeing my garden, but I’m proud of what I’ve created, and wouldn’t change it for anyone.

    Reply
    • Susan J. Tweit says:

      Mark, I love the English cottage garden style, and I especially love ornamental grasses for their architectural form in winter. I bet your yard is gorgeous! I designed high-desert cottage gardens for the tiny front yards of an infill townhouse development going in a few blocks from my house, and I can’t wait to see how they turn out. It’s tougher to get the cottage garden look in a climate where it rarely rains (we ended last year with 6.8 inches of precipitation in our third serious year of drought). But I find that choosing and carefully siting native plants works quite well.
      Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Beginnings and endings

      Reply

Trackbacks

  1. Beautiful Flower Pictures Blog – Links – January 11, 2013 says:

    [...] Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens has New Year’s Garden Resolution: Cultivate Untidyness [...]

    Reply

Speak Your Mind Cancel reply

*

CommentLuv badge