Rules Of Gardening, Reconsidered

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Tatsuro Kiuchi

Ok, while we are at it, let’s find some rules to break around the home (thanks to Margaret Renkl and the New York Times for such diverse op-ed contributors):

Let Your Winter Garden Go Wild

NASHVILLE — The snow was three inches deep, a blizzard by Nashville standards, when I got a text from a parent supervising the neighborhood sledding: “It’s a robin migration out in your front yard. Do you put food out there for them?”

I went to the window to look. There are nine bird feeders around my house, but I’ve never seen a robin at a single one of them. In winter, robins do gather in great flocks here in Middle Tennessee, and our yard is always popular with them because we have a birdbath with a heating element that keeps it from freezing. Even in winter, birds need to bathe — a seemingly counterintuitive behavior that keeps their feathers in shape for maximum insulation.

So it didn’t surprise me to find more than a hundred robins in our yard on that snowy day. What surprised me was what they were doing. A robin’s usual practice here is to pick earthworms out of the exposed soil churned up by moles in what passes for a lawn at this house, but there are no worms near the surface on freezing days. Instead, these robins were eating dried berries from the brown monkey grass bordering our front walkway. Normally one of our sons mows down the monkey grass in late fall, after the first frost, but our youngest child left for college in August, and this year neither my husband nor I ever got around to cutting it back ourselves.

I have never been a very orderly gardener. In spring I prefer planting to weeding. I like to watch birds pulling seeds from dried flowers, so I let the flowers fall to ruin in summer instead of deadheading them to force the plant to produce new blooms. In fall it has always seemed almost criminal to tidy up the golden windfall of sugar-maple leaves covering the ground like pirate’s treasure in a storybook, so we let them lie until they’re finally brown and brittle. By then there’s no good reason not to bring out the mower and reduce the leaves to shreds so they can feed the trees they fell from.

In spite of these desultory habits, I did, in years past, at least tuck the flower beds in for winter — cutting back the dried stalks of perennials, composting the remains of annuals, tugging out the weeds I’d ignored all summer, installing a deep layer of mulch to keep everything safe from the cold. I have a shed full of rakes and spades and three-pronged cultivators because sometimes the neighborhood children will descend in a pack to help me with this task. One fall a bunch of them showed up in roller skates and didn’t bother to change into shoes before they took up their tools.

I don’t tuck in my flower beds anymore. Year by year, the little creatures that share this yard have been teaching me the value of an untidy garden. This year I learned not to cut back the monkey grass, and now the robins will have plenty of dried berries on the first snow day in coming winters…

Read the whole op-ed here.

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