As I've given talks about utilizing native plants in our landscapes, I've become aware that many people are scared of "losing control" in their gardens by using native plants and by following organic gardening methods. So I thought folks might be interested in a blow by blow account of how I maintain my native plant landscape. I actually think that my garden chores are significantly less onerous than those of more traditional gardeners.
To start with (or, perhaps, to end with), I don't cut back my perennials in the fall or winter. Many insects overwinter in or on dead plant stems, including some of our native bees; other insect species overwinter in the leaf litter. Predators are particularly likely to be among the insects overwintering this way. The leaf litter also provides great foraging habitat for winter birds, as do the standing seedheads. Watching the birds forage and seeing the patterns of the plant stems adds winter interest to the landscape. When you add in the fact that standing vegetation holds snow (moisture) in place better than "clean" beds, you definitely have a winning winter combination for the garden.
Winter, then, is pretty basic. Enjoy the scenery!
As the plants begin to green up in the early spring, it's time to do the first chore of the year: cut back last summer's dead plant material. I consider this the main "work" in the organic, native plant garden. Otherwise, the garden takes very good care of itself. The timing of the spring cutback is always a balancing act for me. I prefer to wait long enough that there aren't many late freezes left, although that's not always possible on the prairie. Since I have planted a variety of crocus, daffodil, tulip, hyacinth, and grape hyacinth bulbs, I've started using their early blooming as my signal. Darn it - I planted them, so I want to see them!
This year my spring clean up has been particularly protracted, but that's okay. This is gardening, not a precision dance routine or an accounting balance sheet.
That said, the beds do look better if I follow up this tidying chore with some editing, which is best done at this time of year. I'll discuss that in the next post.