How To Care For A Native Garden: The Tidy Mess Model

How To Care For A Native Garden: The Tidy Mess Model

It is a rainy morning here in Chicago and though not wise to go tromping around in the garden for fear of compacting the soil, it is a great opportunity to cozy up with a cup of tea to share a few thoughts on caring for a native garden this early spring. 

My favorite way to describe a good garden system is as "a tidy mess" —with plenty of leaves, branches, and possibly some larger limbs to feed all of the wonderful organisms in the soil, and to —yes— provide overwintering material for all of the incredible pollinators that we rely on to hold our food web together. 

There is much grumbling late winter and early spring about cutting the garden back, not cutting the garden back, about the mysterious 50 degree point, cleaning, raking, and so on. But I just want to throw this in there: give yourself a break and just shoot for the "tidy mess model" —it is really easy. What does this mean?

1. What grows (and falls) in the garden, stays in the garden. That's right —whether you cut it back or not (and we do both depending on how the garden was planted), everything from the season before should stay there. No filling of large hardware store paper bags needed. Some exceptions may occur during the establishment phase when unwanted species find their way in and start to set seed —these we remove with as little disturbance to the soil as possible.

2. Compromise as needed. Understand that while you might be aware of all the glorious value your native garden provides, your neighbors might not. This means reel it in if things are getting too wild for your urban area and context. We want to get people to come along with us on this journey and not cause push-back. This can simply mean adding more patterning and structure for readability, reducing your garden's height, or trimming things from a walkway.

3. Show intent. While some may advocate for a more hands-off approach, we are still gardening —a practice that goes back to the beginning of time. Humans are patterners and tinkerers and are enamored by the site of a flower. So don't worry if you like your garden to look a certain way and that certain way includes arranging and collecting and (gasp) tidying up before the season starts. Make it look good to you and find new ways to add form and function. We DO believe that when adding new plants, they should be native species only at this point —we have enough of the other stuff. We also believe in sweeping the sidewalk and tidying up the border to show the garden is cared for.

4. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just do your best —which I assure you will have remarkable success and bring endless joy. Experiment, be ok with things popping in and out, share seeds and plants and embrace the process. A beautiful garden is not created overnight and may take years to develop the deep layering that builds a healthy ecosystem and awe inspiring beauty. 

So there you have it. Get out there and garden, experiment, have fun, be respectful of the neighbors, and spread the word!

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