A lot goes through my brain on a daily basis. Taking a writing class and a speaking class at SFA only add to the stimulation. Here lately, I’ve been pondering why I garden. It does take precious time, dwindling energy, and scarce funds. I’m sure different folks have different reasons, but for me, it boils down to the fact that I love nature. After all, gardening is just nature after a being forced into a Miss Manners class and being guided by an overly focused hand. But are manners and submission the way to go? I think not. I believe most gardeners have too many rules, set expectations too high, and often garden for the wrong reasons.
I train a new Master Gardener class each year and can tell you that many of them are more excited about being labeled a “master” gardener and improving the appearance of their plants and properties at home than they are volunteering to educate. Showing off for friends and neighbors has always been part of gardening. But these days, I think we need to look at a bigger picture and garden in a more holistic fashion. The top reasons for gardening should not be winning yard of the month, claiming a blue ribbon in the flower show, or producing the largest pumpkin in the world.
We have a plethora of problems going on our planet right now, including pollinators, pesticides, pollution, and property use. Nature needs our help in the worst way, and we gardeners are best suited to help. As I sit here writing this, I’m looking out the window from my paternal great grandparent’s old farmhouse onto my quarter acre pocket prairie. My dad calls it my “weed patch” and offers to mow it for me each year. I do mow it. Once a year, each January. This allows a full season’s worth of growth, including summer and fall blooming perennials that don’t get a chance on our ever-coiffed roadsides and right-of-ways. Right now, I’m looking at masses of goldenrod waving in the wind, fluttering with bees, butterflies, and assorted other bugs that I don’t recognize. Yes, it’s tall. That’s why they named it Solidago altissima! Complaining about its height is akin to complaining about the size of an oak tree or the speed of a rabbit.
In September, I spoke at a Small Properties, Big Ideas program hosted by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service between Lufkin and Nacogdoches. Many of the attendees were new property owners and I can tell were approaching land use from the traditional “dominance over nature” approach passed down from our earliest European settlers.
One lady was frantic about dewberries and goldenrod taking over her property. Another was beside herself about all the limbs that fell into her forest after last winter’s ice storm. Still yet, one of the speakers disagreed with my statement that all native plants were equal. He was looking at them from a wildlife/hunting aspect. I was including all animals, insects, earthworms, fungi, bacteria, etc. Every native plant is truly a cog in the wheel supporting some other form or forms of life. Most native plants are host plants for some species of butterfly or moth whose larval stage caterpillars feed baby birds, wasps, etc.
Each of these attendees was thinking of their property as a garden, farm, or park when they should be thinking about them as potentially functional parts of a larger ecosystem. Nature is a good teacher. We should listen to her more. In addition to every plant and animal being of equal importance, we also know that death is just as important as life. Without death there would be no succession and replacement plants, no primary cavity dwelling woodpeckers, and no secondary cavity dwellers like bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches. Without death, there would be no life.
But perhaps the most important lesson of all is that nature isn’t neat. There are no lawn mowers, string trimmers, blowers, rakes, compost piles, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, or Master Gardeners in nature. Everything balances out. Some plants and animals are living while other plants and animals are dying. Aggressive plants take up space while slower growing ones move in later, like a PBS Nature version of The Tortoise and the Hair. Limbs fall, fires take place, insects come and go, and all once-living things break down into humus to produce new living things.
The week before I wrote this, I was walking across the campus at SFA and noticed the sidewalk was covered with dismembered pinecones tossed down from ravenous squirrels. It made me smile. Yes, it was a “mess,” but it was natural mess that was happening because the landscape was conducive to wildlife. A multitude of pine needles were dropping because we were in an early fall drought; but that’s OK. Pine trees always drop needles at the end of the summer. Some I mow and some I rake to use as mulch; but I never fault them for falling. We shouldn’t be any more upset with falling pine needles as we are with falling crapemyrtle blossoms, colorful maple leaves, or bountiful pears. Stuff falls. Just ask Newton.
The day before my campus trip, I had several botanists visit from the Smithsonian to take hickory samples from my property including the somewhat rare nutmeg hickory. It made me proud to be a steward of not a garden nor a hickory orchard, but a hardwood forest where I let all native plants grow and work things out each year on their own. Live and let live. Nature drives the bus.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying gardeners need to be messy, leave limbs in their yard, or allow weeds to run amuck, but we do need to change how we garden. We need to grow. As Mrs. G says, “Be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.”
Sow diversity. Have as many native plants as possible. Create habitat. Make sure your landscape provides fruits, nuts, seeds, shelter, and water. Remember, native insects fuel the ecosystem, so try to limit pesticides. They kill stuff. Being neat and tidy is OK, but don’t overdo it. It’s OK to look pretty. Think of an English cottage garden. Grow natural. Bee happy!