What is “lazy gardening”?

For some time now, organizations that advocate for natural yards have been urging gardeners to not clean up their plantings in the fall. These organizations cite the many benefits of a “messy” yard: pollinators overwinter in stems that have died back, birds eat seedheads held above the snow, last year’s growth deters deer from trying to eat next spring’s new shoots, the lack of bare soil discourages weeds from sprouting, and so on.

Also for some time now, natural gardeners have been advised to hang up signs explaining these benefits, so their wild plantings are not mistaken for being the result of laziness or negligence. For a long time, natural gardeners have noticed that a simple sign can make the difference between neighbors complaining about what they perceive as an unmowed lawn, and neighbors understanding that that yard looks different on purpose.

Now, there has been an interesting development. Habitat Network, an initiative of The Nature Conservancy and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology that advocates for wildlife-friendly yards, has asked homeowners to pledge to be “lazy gardeners“. The organization is inviting those who take the pledge to put up a window sticker declaring the property owner to be an “Official Lazy Gardener”.

Assuming that Habitat Network has not completely misread the situation, this suggests that most people are now aware that a messy yard is being mindfully managed for the health of wildlife and the planet, and has not simply been abandoned because the property owner cannot be bothered to mow their lawn. The campaign seems to indicate that nowadays, most people recognize a declaration of “lazy gardening” as a joke, and not as a literal explanation of why leaves are unraked, trees are unpruned, and plants are left standing over the winter.

This fall – and all year round – be a lazy gardener. You’ll be working smarter, not harder, enjoying more benefits from your yard with much less effort.

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What is “lazy gardening”?

What is benign neglect?

Benign neglect is the recognition that not all things need intensive maintenance. Some things do just fine – do best, even – when left mostly to their own devices.

For example, no one is likely to accuse you of neglecting your child if you don’t bottle-feed, burp, and diaper your typically-developing 15-year-old. Teenagers still need help and guidance, but they can do most things for themselves, and they become more self-sufficient year by year – especially if allowed some independence and the opportunity to try things on their own.

A natural yard is like a teenager. With the exception of some highly-domesticated species, plants are wild creatures that are capable of taking care of all their own needs, especially when they are living in naturalistic communities. There is little a gardener can do that really helps a plant – they don’t particularly benefit from fertilizer, they don’t need pesticides when natural pest predators are able to live in the area, and they don’t require supplemental water if they’ve been sited in the right spot. In other words, in the context of a healthy natural yard, doing minimal yard work isn’t lack of maintenance. It’s benign neglect. The garden is doing just fine on its own. In fact, it is doing better than it would be if the gardener constantly interfered with the garden’s natural processes.

Sometimes, a gardener who does minimal yard work is mistaken for being lazy, instead of being recognized as having a yard that is low-maintenance by design. This is akin to accusing someone of not maintaining their car when they have bought a reliable vehicle rather than an old beater (and hence they don’t spend much time bringing it to the repair shop), or insisting that someone is not taking good care of their pet because they don’t regularly walk and play with their goldfish. Some yards just don’t need much maintenance, and having such a yard is usually a mindful choice motivated by reasons other than laziness.

For example, the gardener may have a demanding job that leaves them with little time for yard work, and so they choose to have a yard that can look after itself while its owner is staying late at the office. They may have a disability that makes it hard for them to struggle with a lawnmower every week. They may be planning ahead for when they are elderly and unable to keep up with the maintenance requirements of a lawn. Or, they may have established a natural yard because it filters stormwater, supports wildlife, combats climate change, and creates peace and quiet in the neighborhood – the fact that it is easier to maintain is just a fringe benefit.

All of us are busy and have many priorities. Replacing maintenance-intensive aspects of our lives with things that benefit from benign neglect is not a sign of laziness; it’s a wise choice that allows us to make the best use of our time.

What is benign neglect?

What is maintenance?

Maintenance is the practice of keeping something in the same state it is already in.

This makes sense when something is currently in a good state, but not when something is in a bad state. We don’t speak of maintaining our health when we have the flu; our doctor doesn’t advise us to maintain our weight after informing us we are obese. Similarly, we don’t maintain our home if we have just bought a fixer-upper: first we need to repair it.

By almost any measure, our Earth is not currently in a good state. Forests are vanishing at an alarming rate. The oceans are on track to contain more plastic than fish in the not-so-distant future. And global temperatures are rapidly moving into a range that we are not certain is compatible with the continued existence of human civilization.

For the same reason that sustainability is no longer good enough, we need to do more than simply maintain our planet: we need to restore it to a healthy state.

Our yards are a microcosm of this. Arguably, a lawn is not a good state that we want to maintain: it is a monoculture of unhealthy non-native plants kept alive with infusions of our dwindling water supplies, applications of chemicals known to cause cancer, and regular use of machines that are contributing to the present climate crisis. When we “maintain” our lawns, we are keeping our yards in a degraded state that is harmful to our own health and the health of our planet.

Now is the time to restore our yards to thriving communities of native plants, free of fossil fuels and toxic chemicals. Only once we have done so will it be possible to maintain our yards in the sense of keeping them in a state that’s worth preserving.

What is maintenance?

Why do some trees keep their leaves later into the fall?

The intuitive answer is that a healthy, vigorous tree will keep on photosynthesizing late into the fall, while a weak, sick tree will give up and go dormant earlier in the season. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.

When it comes to the problem of how long leaves should be held onto, a tree faces a dilemma. On the one hand, a tree can only produce food and store energy while it still has its leaves. But on the other hand, as winter creeps closer, having lots of green leaves is a big risk – the leaves could be killed suddenly by a frost, or they could catch flakes in an early snowfall, causing weight to pile up on the tree and increasing the likelihood that branches will break.

In the normal course of things, a tree wants to store all the energy that its leaves have produced, reabsorb the chlorophyll and other useful chemicals from its leaves so they can be used again the following year, and then jettison the leaves and ride out the winter in a dormant state. Ideally, all of this will happen just before frost arrives, thus maximizing photosynthesis and minimizing the risk of frost damage.

Of course, the tree doesn’t know exactly when the first frost will arrive, and so it has to take a bit of a gamble with its timing.

A healthy tree that has stored up plenty of energy for the winter will play it safe, losing its leaves well before cold weather sets in, and relying on its reserves to last until spring. Conversely, a tree that is struggling will run the risk of being injured by a night of freezing temperatures in order to squeeze in a few more days of photosynthesis, in the hopes of storing enough food to make it through to the next growing season.

Thus, trees that settle in for winter early are doing well, and trees that cling to their leaves are desperately trying to survive.

Why do some trees keep their leaves later into the fall?

Why do trees lose their leaves and branches?

The common understanding is that a tree’s leaves die at the end of the summer, and then fall off. This isn’t quite accurate. It’s more correct to say that the tree kills its leaves.

What’s really happening is that the tree builds a layer of cells inside the leaf’s stem to create a seal that blocks the flow of nutrients to the leaf. Imagine putting a tourniquet around your arm and leaving it there: eventually your arm would die and fall off, and that’s exactly what happens to the leaf.

A similar thing happens with branches. Humans, like most other animals, start their lives with a fixed number of limbs, and don’t get any more. For this reason, we’re very interested in keeping our arms and legs intact. But a tree can grow a new limb pretty much whenever and wherever it wants. When a branch isn’t pulling its weight, the tree will kill it – by creating an internal seal and starving it to death – and then grow a new branch that contributes more to the tree as a whole.

When a leaf or branch that has been killed in this way falls off, it doesn’t do the tree any harm. The tree wasn’t using that body part anymore, and the internal seal prevents any infection from entering the living parts of the tree. In contrast, when a leaf or branch is broken off suddenly – perhaps due to a hungry herbivore, pruning, or a powerful windstorm – the tree loses a healthy, productive body part, and acquires a wound through which insects or fungal infections can easily enter. Because trees don’t do anything very quickly, it can take them years to seal even a relatively small wound – more than enough time for a serious infection to set in.

It’s therefore inaccurate to say that cutting off a tree’s limb doesn’t hurt the tree. Of course, it doesn’t hurt the tree the same way that it would hurt a human, because the tree can regenerate. But the loss of a productively photosynthesizing branch, coupled with the energy demands of sealing a wound and growing a replacement branch, can put serious stress on a tree. While pruning may be desired for other reasons, the idea that pruning is good for a tree’s health just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Why do trees lose their leaves and branches?

What are Neotropical migrants?

We all know that birds go south for the winter. But where exactly is “south”? For many of our favorite birds, it’s countries like Brazil and Ecuador. Species that travel up and down the western hemisphere are called Neotropical migrants.

What this migration pattern means is that people in South America, as well as Central America and the Caribbean, enjoy many of the same birds that we do. If we all want to continue enjoying these colorful visitors, we all need to be responsible about providing them a safe place to stay.

Our southern neighbors steward these birds’ wintering grounds – the place birds go to find plentiful food and hospitable temperatures when northern regions become too cold and snowy. We, in turn, care for the birds’ breeding grounds – the area where they nest and raise their young.

At both ends of their migration route, birds need food, water, and shelter. If these are not available, they will either be unable to raise their next generation, or they will fail to survive the winter. Either way, people all across the Americas will have fewer birds to brighten their yards.

What we do on our own property may seem like a matter of personal preference, or, at best, a subject to be negotiated with our immediate neighbors. In fact, whether our yard provides a safe home for wildlife, and whether it produces other ecosystem services, impacts friends on other continents. It’s important to keep this in mind as we decide how to care for our land.

What are Neotropical migrants?

Where do birds nest?

When we think of birds nesting, we often picture something like this:

Image result for bird nest cartoon

In fact, most birds do not build their nests on high tree branches.

Some birds nest on the ground, taking cover in tall grass.

Some birds, called primary cavity nesters, peck a hole in a tree and build their nest inside it. Other birds seek out holes used by primary cavity nesters in previous years. These birds, known as secondary cavity nesters, are the species that will use birdhouses.

And many birds nest in shrubs. They look for dense vegetation, three to six feet above the ground, that will provide a safe place to raise their babies. It is exactly this shrub layer that is missing in an undervegetated yard. When appropriate places to nest are not available, birds may not nest at all, putting the survival of their species in jeopardy.

A shrub layer is not difficult to establish. Young shrubs can be planted near each other – accounting for their mature size – to grow into a dense grouping. In a few years, they will provide a place for birds to nest, as well as flowers for pollinators, privacy screening for people, and a host of other benefits.

Where do birds nest?