Changing Roles of Gardens
As a college student many years ago, (ok, decades ago) I was taught about “good garden plants.” These were roughly defined as long blooming, pest- and disease-free, and non-self-sowing. All these qualities sounded great to me. Horticulturists wanted gardens to work for us; and for plants to do what we wanted them to do. A garden’s primary purpose was to provide pleasure. But as time has passed, I’ve realized that a garden can be so much more than just pleasing to ME –and it only takes a few simple changes.
First, let’s take a closer look at those ‘Good Garden Plants.’
Plants ‘that bloom all summer’ are usually either
1) an annual that is naturally programmed to bloom its head off, set seed and die
or 2) a perennial that has been bred for repeated blooms, larger flowers, compact form, and/or more intense color. However, somewhere along the breeding path things like fertility, nectar production, and fragrance have been lost—these may be non-essential elements for people, but fundamental for insects and birds which feed on nectar and nutritious seeds.
…and what about those ‘pests’ that we try to avoid? Don’t those include caterpillars which pupate into butterflies? And some of those other ‘pests’ – aren’t they essential pollinators or food for birds? A garden made of only “good garden plants” can be very beautiful, but lacking in LIFE which comes from the nature a garden can attract. Without wild areas to nest, feed and breed, many species face an uphill challenge.
There is a revolution going on in America’s gardens though. Gardeners are recognizing that a garden can be more than just a combination of perfect posies that please humans. Gardeners are starting to realize that their gardens can replace some things that may be lost due to human activities. Gardens can still be beautiful while also providing food, water, and overwintering habitat for creatures large and small.
I find myself adding more and more native plants and their cultivars to both the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden and my home garden because of the additional layer of LIFE certain plants attract. As I mentioned earlier, not all plants offer the same benefits to insects.
So how do you know which plants entice pollinators? One easy way is to slow down and watch. Simple as that! Visit public gardens or garden centers and study which plants are visited by certain insects. Last summer I let the bees decide which Coreopsis I added to the Ripley Garden just by watching which cultivars the bees visited. There were 12 different cultivars of Coreopsis in bloom on the sales bench, but the bees were not attracted to all of them equally. The bees ignored some cultivars completely, while others were abuzz with activity. Those were the plants I added to the gardens I cultivate.
Another thing I am doing more of is RELAXING!! I no longer feel compelled to keep everything staked and pruned perfectly. I allow the gardens I tend to become more rumpled and natural looking. Plus, I am embracing the winter garden and loving the juxtaposition of evergreen and tawny winter browns. Yes, I still tidy up a little in the fall, cutting selective plants back, but I no longer ‘put the garden to bed’ by cutting everything to the ground. Instead, this past winter I enjoyed watching birds take advantage of the cover provided by Panicum grass, and knew that there were insects and other creatures cozily tucked in there for the winter.
When I do cut old stems down in the spring, I leave bits and pieces for the birds as nesting materials as well as small piles of leaves which robins and other birds rummage through looking for insects that munch on the decaying leaves. Along with building bug houses for insects to overwinter in, I also leave piles of twigs and stems in out-of-the-way locations, and old rotting branches to decompose in place – anything to help Nature continue to coexist with our ever-growing population.
These are little changes in the way I garden, but they have a huge impact on providing habitat for wildlife. I encourage you to embrace a little messiness in your own garden–you will likely be rewarded by a whole new dimension of life your garden will support.
Janet Draper – Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist