A Love of Untidy Wildlife Gardens and Why !

Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Purple Coneflower

The typical garden may be “neat as a pin” but, to some, “ugly as sin” and pretty darned unfriendly to wildlife.  I’m not saying that a garden has to be untidy, but so many of our maintenance tasks are just plain fussy and have the potential to be highly detrimental to the very critters we’ve invited into the garden.

The ultimate maintenance task that really irks me, is when pond owners feel compelled to clean out their pond for winter.  What are they thinking?  Does anyone clean out a pond in the wild?  Are there little woodland elves in green berets that scamper about the woods, raking leaves and pond gunk out of the bottom and literally scrubbing the sides of a natural pond?  If so, I’ve never seen one!  And thank goodness.  Such tasks would eliminate next year’s dragonflies.  Why?  Because their nymphs survive the winter safely in the muck at the bottom of a pond.  Frogs too sleep (hibernate) safely in the gunk at the bottom of a pond, below where the water freezes.

So, before grabbing pencil and paper to complete one more “to do” list for your garden, stop and ask yourself: (1) Is this truly necessary? (2) In a wild area like this (a pond, meadow, etc.) is there any way this would be done naturally? (3) Could this task harm wildlife in any way?  So many garden tasks are driven by attempts to achieve a certain “look” in the garden and often at the expense of the very wildlife a gardener has gone to great lengths to attract.

laying down garden-w-sig

Tall Sunflowers and New England Asters laid down by Hurricane Irene

Hurricane Irene (August 28, 2011) flattened our wildlife garden here in Cape May County, New Jersey, while we were away on vacation.  But, guess what?  Despite the garden literally laying down due to strong winds and heavy rain, we came home to find it still blooming strong and still full of butterflies, bossy and hungry hummingbirds, Garden Spiders, wasps, bees, Soldier Beetles . . .  These garden visitors not only didn’t mind the chaos Hurricane Irene had dealt, they didn’t seem to notice.

Monarch chrysalis w-sig

Hidden Monarch chrysalis that miraculously survived my tidying up

It’s kind of fun to stop in your tracks and think long and hard before brutally pulling back and tying up a snapped, bent over, and just about touching the ground Tall Sunflower.  After the hurricane, I walked through our garden, stepping over countless fallen, but still blooming, plants.  Alas I had to tidy up a bit, didn’t I?  A group was coming to tour the garden.  How could I expect them to navigate or even get from the front gate to the back garden gate?  So, I began to snip back, tie up, cut off, and rudely prop up garden plants that lay across the path to make the garden accessible.

The group came and strolled through, and the first thing they found was a Monarch chrysalis less than one inch from one of my newly placed plant supports.  How I hadn’t fatally damaged the chrysalis was beyond me.  I hope that my tidy-up efforts didn’t harm any others, but I’ll bet they did.

Goldfinch eating Purple Conefl Seeds-8-23-07(4)-w-sig

American Goldfinch feeding on Purple Coneflower seed heads

I stopped deadheading Purple Coneflower, Anise Hyssop, Black-eyed Susan, and Tall Sunflower years ago when I noticed American Goldfinch feasting on their spent seed heads all summer and fall.

I leave the garden standing in the fall and savor it all winter long.  Birds benefit from the cover and spend lots of time in the winter garden finding both seeds and insects in the still-standing stalks.

Garden in winter w-sig

I can’t imagine preferring a tidy, bare area to this bounty.

Next year’s butterflies are in the winter garden as eggs, partially grown caterpillars in curled up leaves, or as chrysalises attached to still-standing perennial stalks.  Heaven forbid I should cut all that down in the fall and send it off to a compost pile or the dump.  That would be like sending next year’s butterflies away forever.

Luna Moth w-sig

Luna Moth

Rake leaves?  Never!  Once I learned that so many of our butterflies (and moths) winter in leaf litter as partially grown caterpillars or as a chrysalis, I abandoned even the thought of raking.  For example, the Luna Moth lays it’s eggs on Sweet Gum leaves.  The caterpillar feeds on the leaves until it is full size, then wraps a leaf around itself and silks the leaf shut creating a cocoon with the pupa inside. The caterpillar has not silked the leaf to the tree, like some of the other silk moths.  And when the leaves fall to the ground in the late fall, so does the Luna Moth cocoon.  It winters safely in under all the accumulated leaves.  In the spring the adult Luna Moth emerges from this cocoon.  So, bagging up leaves in the fall, again, is effectively like sending next year’s butterflies and moths away . . . forever.

AmGoldfinch eating PurpleGiantHyssop-SuttonGDN-8-9-11 (002)-w-sig

American Goldfinch feeding on Purple Giant Hyssop seed heads

Put the garden “to do” list away.  Grab your binoculars and camera and enjoy the fruits of your labor, or maybe the fruits of your lack of labor.

© 2011, Pat Sutton. 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

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    About Pat Sutton

    Pat Sutton lives near Cape May, New Jersey, the world renowned migratory crossroads that is famous for its hawk, owl, songbird, shorebird, and Monarch butterfly migration. She has keenly studied the natural world for 30 years.

    Pat and her husband Clay's landmark book, Birds and Birding at Cape May, is the in-depth result of their efforts over many years documenting and protecting the migration and the hometown that they so love.

    Pat and Clay Sutton together have co-authored How to Spot Butterflies, How to Spot Hawks & Eagles, and How to Spot an Owl.

    Pat has been a working naturalist since 1977, first for the Cape May Point State Park and then for 21 years with New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory, where she was the Naturalist and Program Director.

    Today, Pat and Clay are free-lance writers, naturalists, lecturers, and tour leaders. Pat is a founding Board Member of the North American Butterfly Association. She coauthored, with David Wright, CMBO's "Cape May County Butterfly Checklist" and the Cape May County butterfly site guide in Jeffrey Glassberg's Butterflies Through Binoculars.

    She is a passionate advocate and wildlife gardener for (and photographer of) butterflies, moths, birds, and other critters. Articles and photography by Pat & Clay have appeared in New Jersey Audubon, Peregrine Observer, New Jersey Outdoors, Sanctuary, American Butterflies, Wild Bird, Bird Watcher's Digest, Birder's World, Birding, Living Bird, Defenders, and others. Check out Pat's Facebook page.


    1. Gail Bolin says:

      Thanks for your wonderful story, and I’m glad to know that other gardens are just as messy as I am!

      • Pat Sutton says:

        Sallysue & Gail — When doing workshops about wildlife gardening and giving example after example, I have fun sharing that this (or that) bit of knowledge gives us one more great excuse to be a messy gardener and have more time to enjoy the garden.

    2. Sallysue Stein says:

      My mom, Butterfly, and I also leave many of flowers for the birds to feast upon. I was so happy to read your post and I hope it is shared far and wide so that gardeners learn how best to life WITH wildlife, in support of it. It can be so beneficial to our gardens, not to mention to our spirits!
      Sallysue Stein recently posted..It’s 4 O’clock Somewhere!

    3. Kevin Songer says:

      I like this style. Great article.

      • Pat Sutton says:

        Kevin — thanks so much !

    4. Benjamin Vogt says:

      Holy cow AMEN! I cut down in mid March, and feel bad then. I do put everything I cut back on the ground as mulch–which includes many hollow-stemmed plants like joe pye for insects to nest in.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..All About Me

      • Pat Sutton says:

        I too feel guilty cutting the perennial garden back in March. Try to lay it all loosely on the ground in our woods, so life cycles can carry on.

    5. Beatriz Moisset says:

      Well said, Pat! We could add a few things to this list: weedy lawns, rich on flowering little plants that benefit pollinators. Dead snugs or dead branches or stumps that provide housing for pollinators and birds; some of them make beautiful abstract sculptures. Brush piles, also for birds and some useful insects; same thing with tussocks.
      Nature does it best; we should try to understand its ways rather than impose our misguided ones on the landscape.
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Bees and vitamins

      • Sue Sweeney says:

        Good article. Along this line, I’ve been told a thousand times, it seems, why native meadow installations need to be mowed at least once a year. Otherwise, I’m told the meadow will revert to forest. Really? It takes trees years to grow, even when the white-tailed deer aren’t browsing them. When a meadow is mowed, regardless of the time of year, some insects are harmed. For example, winter mowing can destroy cricket eggs (and where would we be without crickets?) During the warm seasons, mowing can also kill ground-nesting animals and reduce flower and seed production.

        In my experience, sapling trees can be easily controlled by occasional hand cutting. However, if mowing at some point is a must for some reason, try to mow only a quarter of the area each year.

        It is true that different species need open bare space (some dry, some muddy), open low vegetation, grassy mounds, log piles, etc so it doesn’t hurt to design the meadow with as much diversity as possible. There’s a difference, tho, between always keeping a designated area cut to the ground, and periodic cutting – the latter disrupts the life cycle of the critters who’ve come to depend on the high vegetation being there.

      • Pat Sutton says:

        Indeed! I like that: Nature does it best.

    6. Carol Duke says:

      Pat, I too once nearly destroyed a chrysalis in the garden while straightening up. I had to run inside and get some thread to secure a Monarch chrysalis back onto a twig I accidentally pulled it away from. I could so easily have destroyed it. Now I just let the garden do its thing and in the spring I remove some overgrown plants. Wonderful photos of your gardens along with the creatures that benefit from your wise gardening methods.
      Carol Duke recently posted..September Garden Walkabout Blooms of Monarchs

      • Pat Sutton says:

        Carol — we’ve learned so much over our years of wildlife gardening, haven’t we. Fun to share it here and hopefully spare someone the pain of “doing in” a Monarch chrysalis or some other garden jewel.

    7. Sue Reed says:

      I love this post, Pat!…partly because it’s so full of useful information and partly because it affirms my own natural tendency to be lazy in my landscape. Thanks!

      • Pat Sutton says:

        Hi Sue – thanks so much! Others might call us lazy gardeners, but you & I know we’re wise gardeners. More time enjoying and less time fussing.

    8. Donna@ Gardens Eye View says:

      Bravo Pat. I only learned these lessons the hard way or because I couldn’t get to the tidying up. Realizing like you that I was clearing away habitats, I stopped. I love the messy look; the natural look and the surprises and wonders I find are truly wonderful!!
      Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Radiant

      • Pat Sutton says:

        Donna — thanks so much! To a world of surprises and wonders in our gardens!

    9. Carole Sevilla Brown says:

      Pat, this is so important. Thank you so much for reminding us that a lighter hand is often much better for wildlife in our gardens. Plus, I am still laughing about the “woodland elves” skipping around the forest to clean out the ponds :)
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..In Memoriam, Irma McVey

    10. Trish Harrington says:

      Love your pics…I also can appreciate some ‘untidyness’ in my garden..leaving seeds from purple coneflowers, etc for the birds. I have your book Birds and Birding in Cape May, and wil be visiting there this Thursday for a long weekend. I can’t wait to visit the hawkwatch, Higbee and cmbo – there’s always something new I learn and see.

      • Pat Sutton says:

        Hi Trish — have a ball when you’re here.

    11. Diane St John says:

      This post captures so many of my feelings about the garden! Thanks for writing it! I love the way the plants look in winter and enjoy the birds perching on them and eating the seeds. My kids also use the purple coneflower seed pods as “eyes” for their snowmen. I will be more careful when cutting back in spring so I do not disturb awakening life in the garden!
      Diane St John recently posted..Weed and Feed or Asthma? Maybe a little splash of a learning disability? You make the choice.

    12. Ellen Sousa says:

      Fall is such a better time when you are a “wildlife gardener”, you can forget all the back-breaking cleanup and raking, etc. etc and devote your time to sipping a glass of cider under a shade tree enjoying the butterflies and birds!

      Just today I was looking at a monarch butterfly caterpillar working away at the tattered remains of a swamp milkweed in a bed that got flooded after Irene and Lee a few weeks ago…the plant looks awful, infested with aphids and clearly under stress, but the caterpillar didn’t care, he was blissfully unaware of how lucky he was that the plant hadn’t been cut down by a tidy-minded gardener.

      I always think about the saying “A messy desk is the sign of a genius”. What does that make the messy gardener? :)
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..The Year I Shall Win the Pachysandra War

    13. Loret says:

      HERE! HERE! I LOVE this post and the lessons behind it speak volumes for enhancing our wildlife experiences.
      Loret recently posted..The Sulphur Butterfly Emerged Already!

    14. Elephant's Eye says:

      Our weaver birds rely on me, to leave tall green grass standing. So they have something to weave their nests of!
      Elephant’s Eye recently posted..Wildflower Wednesday in September

    15. Leigh says:

      Pat, I try to follow everything you suggest etc. My one dilemma is leave clutter. We live on 5 acres in woods. Approx 1 acre is grass which I have been closing in with high wildlife value plants I learned about in your lecture at Irvine Nature Center in MD. 6-7 different type of very large oak trees and 2 very large tulip poplars drop so many leaves they make if deep layer over the grass. I cannot eliminate all the the grass because of my husband and many of the weeds – clover, violets, dandylines etc are good food sources (predator bugs, seeds for birds) and host plants for butterflies etc. but if I don’t rake some of the leaves I won’t have any grass\grass weeds. I don’t bag them but can I blow them in thin layers in the woods. I have a mulcher for tractor but I’m scared to use it because of the butterfly and both crystatis, and perdator bugs etc. Any recommendations?



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