To Trim or Not to Trim?

It is the time of year that gardeners’ thoughts turn to garden cleanup.  The flower garden may look like this photo (maybe minus the garden Viking that my son bought me).  Is this messy, charming, or both?  In a Participatory Ecology garden, should you trim the dead, brown stalks or not?

Is the garden Viking saying this is too messy?

If you do determine that you won’t be trimming now, will your neighbors begin to believe they are living with an eyesore?

As with other garden questions, under a more natural gardening paradigm, you have to make plant-by-plant decisions.


This sedum is not a native plant, but it is one of the plants that has the most rationales for not trimming; not only is it rather lovely as a dried winter flower in the garden, but it provides both food in the form of seeds for birds and cover for winter critters.  Okay, this may not be great if the critters are mice!


I think the seed pods on these hybrid hibiscus plants are rather nice looking, and my research shows they also offer up seeds as bird food.


Asters are not quite as attractive by human standards, but still dried-flower worthy, and their seeds are also eaten by winter birds.


Monarda is even a little more scraggly looking, but still nice, and also provides seeds.


Is Joe Pye weed getting to the limit of human aesthetics?  I like it, and it definitely provides food.



These penstemon stalks still have their seed capsules.  Even if the seeds were not eaten by birds, I would leave the stems holding the capsules untrimmed since I count on the plants, one of my favorite garden flowers, to sow any uneaten seed and multiply.


This tangle of gaillardia, another favorite flower, still shows a few blooms.  These blooms will keep providing pollinator food, while the seeds from spent flowers provide bird food.  I imagine these might tiptoe into the human aesthetic of messy.

I have other bird seed plants in the garden not pictured here.  Mountain mint looks like a plant that provides bird seed, but I haven’t yet confirmed that.  Goldenrod is definitely a bird seed plant, although I may bag the flower head so I can save seeds myself and plant in other parts of my gardens.  Daisies also provide bird seed.

I probably won’t need a bird feeder with all this seed, unless I want to provide things like suet.

So, as you may have guessed, I am not planning to trim any of the plants listed above just now, though there are a few plants I do think I will trim.


These annual sunflowers, a product of years of development by Native Americans before European incursions as well as years of breeding for beauty since then, have mostly given up their seeds to goldfinches and other birds.  They took over one of my vegetable beds before I had a chance to plant it.  It’s time for them to go, hopefully pulled with as little soil disruption as possible.


This chicory grew from an Insectory seed mix I got as a free bonus with a seed order, but I don’t really want more chicory plants.  The few I have are enough for me, so I will be clipping this as well.

So, it seems like my garden trimming work will be rather light this year, but what about my neighbors, with their manicured shrubs and wide expanses of mulch in landscape beds?

I guess I will just have to start putting up signs to let them know about all the birds.  I will let you know how that goes in the next post.


Here are some great resources that list more birdseed plants:

Check out this advice from a fellow WordPress blogger at

Another good list:



Kale Ecology

Would you eat this leaf?

I have been telling people, sometimes ruefully, sometimes excitedly, about my “kale ecology.” The lovely rows and rows of donated kale seedlings that I planted last spring had sprouted an apparently entirely self-sufficient ecosystem.  Lots of white flies and at least a few aphids are sucking juices from the kale leaves, and excreting out sweet liquid called honeydew.  Ants crawl up to eat the honeydew.  Flies are landing on the leaves—they must be lapping up honeydew as well.

ANT (1).jpg
One ant on our plants

But what had me jumping up and down (in my mind, since my garden is just outside classroom windows) is the best crop of ladybugs I have ever seen in one garden.  We have lovely yellow eggs, we have the black larvae that are longer than an adult ladybug and always look like some weird armored horror movie critter, we have orange pupae, and we have adults—including a few that seem to be senior citizens.  I had never actually seen the pupa form before, and had to check my guide books to make sure that was what the unmoving orangey and blackish thing about the size of an adult ladybug actually was.

Ladybug pupa on cut leaf
Asian Ladybeetle larva


Predictably, there are also cabbage white butterflies flitting about, and I saw at least one green larva, the “cabbage worm,” a name that I find apt, since the caterpillar always looks squishy to me.  There are also crickets that seem to hang out below the kale plants, in the straw and leaf litter mulch.  There were some other beetles, shield-shaped like stink bugs, but more colorful.

I was hoping my middle school students would share my love of ladybugs, and be impressed by the four totally distinct looking stages of their lives.  But turning over leaves to look for critters raised a cloud of white flies every time, and most students, seeing that happen to one of their cohorts, wouldn’t even approach the kale patch.  One student claimed to have been bitten by something that might have been a grasshopper, like the one sitting on the side of the garden bed, and he was understandably cautious.

Fly and Ladybeetle

But he was one of the students who volunteered to be “brave” enough to actually pull some of our kale plants for composting.  I had already given up the idea of actually using any of the kale for human consumption—the teacher I was working with found that even washing couldn’t eradicate the telltale signs of insects making a meal of the kale.

It is easier to tell people that we need to feed the critters using the ornamental portion of our yards, rather than with the plants we were hoping to eat ourselves.  It’s also easier, even in the vegetable garden, to do when the critter in question is one that is beautiful and naturally makes you pull out your phone or camera to take a picture, like the black swallowtail.  Truth be told, it is impossible to imagine any sharing happening when faced with a plant where every surface that has not been munched away is covered either with eggs or frass (the word for insect poop), or with the fungus that can also be part of a mini-ecology like my kale.

Black Swallowtail Caterpillar

So, we’ll be pulling and composting all the old kale, as well as trying to protect the new kale and its fellow family members, broccoli and kohlrabi, with row covers.  But I won’t regret the ecology that brought had me jumping up and down over ladybugs.


I have long held the notion that we humans need to be doing all we can to steward the ground that stewards us.  At the same time, I have always been uneasy with the apparently prevailing idea of stewardship as “dominion over” the land.  Of course, one only has to see how the mugwort you pulled is back nearly the next day, regrown from all the rootlets you left behind, to understand that nature laughs at our human notions of dominion.

At Rutgers University, I helped lead “conservation garden” efforts in the courtyard backing onto Foran Hall library.  Without really understanding the full implications of the why, I worked with faculty and student volunteers to replace the scraggly community of plants/weeds (including that mugwort) with native plants from Pinelands Nursery.

During one of our work sessions, Dr. Jean Marie Hartman of the Landscape Architecture department remarked that research at the University of Delaware had shown that native plants supported far more insect life than non-natives.

I’ve carried that remark with me for a long time, waiting for full understanding.  It joined other statements, including the one I read in a composting manual some time ago that advocated against turning the soil, since it threw all the penthouse organisms into the basement and vice versa.

It is often in sudden aha-wow! moments that I begin to understand things.  So it was when I had the leisure of reading The Living Landscape, by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy as I recovered from my knee replacement, that I began to understand Jean Marie’s observation—Tallamy and his researchers had done a meticulous study regarding insects being hosted by a long list of native and non-native plants, and shown that natives provided far more support to the insects than the non-natives did.  Actually, this is one reason for the popularity of non-natives—the insects here just cannot use them as food, so they leave them alone (except for such insects as Japanese beetles, which, like increasingly many of our landscape plants, are from elsewhere).  So the pollinators, ladybugs, and other herbivores that play crucial roles in supporting our lives are simply left to starve, as the non-natives replace the plants with which the insects laboriously co-evolved relationships over a long joint history.

Imagine my chagrin as I found that every plant in my fully renovated side bed was one of these aliens.

Many of the aha moments come when I am reading, of course.  The trick often seems to be in translating that to the landscape.  What do you do instead of turning the soil?  How should you transform your yard into one full of natives that will support the critters?  Will just any natives do?  And there is the ever vexatious question of what you should do with the non-natives—rip them out, or not?  If not, what role can you work to assign them in the landscape, insofar as nature responds to our assignments?

This is a new Participatory Ecology series that examines the aha insights and looks to see how to make them work in your own landscape—bearing with the conflicts that arise from changing human patterns of garden behavior and dealing with nature as she imposes her own dominion on each of our efforts.  I am hoping there are others of you out there on the same journey, who can contribute from your own experience, so that together we can begin to understand how to truly achieve a “participatory ecology.”