Most of us have a set idea of what gardens are supposed to look like. Everything needs to be kept in boundaries, arranged in rows and kept free of dead plants, sticks, debris piles, etc.
Yet keeping things neat is great in the kitchen, at the office or in the workshop, but it isn’t helping your garden. Sure, it might look nice and utilitarian – but functionality usually goes deeper than surface appearances. Nature is a mess – a raucous, deliberate, incredible, outrageous mess. If you let some of that mess into your garden, your plants will benefit.
Mess Creates Habitat
Everyone knows that ladybugs are the good guys. Or gals. Or… whatever gender they are. I can’t tell. Anyway – we want them in our gardens. They devour aphids and delight children. Both are great reasons to keep them around. Yet when we rip out a bed of spent tomatoes or chop down the rest of the season’s collards, what happens to the ladybugs? They fly off in search of greener pastures. That’s not to say you should leave tons of rotting vegetable plants everywhere – it just means you should think twice before you clear everything from your beds. I deliberately leave patches of weeds here and there around my yard and gardens for beneficial insects to live in. Also, though it sounds counter-intuitive, you want places for aphids to live as well. Having some aphids around draws in the ladybugs and increases their population. By letting patches of plants sit, you create habitats – and ladybugs aren’t the only creatures that will benefit. You’ll also be creating space for praying mantises, lacewings, wheelbugs, lizards, frogs, toads, centipedes, spiders, worms and pollinators like moths, butterflies, bees and wasps.
Beyond leaving weeds and spent plants around, you can also add rock piles, logs, stacks of sticks and water sources to your gardens. I tend to plant perennial plants near my annuals, which provides year-round living habitat (except in the very coldest months).
Mess Confuses Pests
Let’s pretend we’re at the Golden Corral. For those of you that don’t know, the Golden Corral is an all-you-can-eat buffet filled with a large variety of dishes and frequented by lots of overweight people who are one insulin shot or cardiac event away from death. The Golden Corral provides an incredibly convenient way to stuff yourself with massive amounts of calories. You can load up your plate with mashed potatoes, hot dogs, tater tots, lasagna, margarine-slathered mushrooms, chocolate cake and pizza, then smother the whole thing in gravy and soft-serve ice cream. No one cares! It’s fun!
Now imagine you went to the Golden Corral and found that the buffet had changed. Instead of a massive array of delicious sub-par food, the food was scattered here and there… and between the foods were a variety of disgusting and poisonous things. Sure enough, there are the mashed potatoes… but they’re in between a platter of dirty socks and a bucket of Lysol. Further down, you might find the margarine-slathered mushrooms, but they’re uncomfortably close to a pile of stable manure and a big bowl of tung oil. If you were starving, you might stick around – but you’d have to admit, the dining experience would be really unsatisfying and would likely push you right out the door and across the street to Waffle House.
Many pests are host-specific, which means they only like to eat certain plants. Mix up the menu with plants they can’t eat – or ones that might even be toxic to them – and your garden goes from being a bug buffet to an outlet condemned by the Arthropod Health Department.
Herbs, flowers, beans, greens, climbers, creepers and shrubs all have their place in a home garden… mix them up and you’ll mix up the pests, too.
Mess Is Good for the Soil
It’s true! Just like I wrote in my article on deep mulch gardening, organic matter is a boon to poor soil – but what we sometimes don’t realize is how many miles of roots extend beneath the surface of our gardens. When a plant dies and rots in place, the roots become compost in the soil. When leaves fall, their nutrients return to the earth. One of the stupidest things modern gardeners do is clean up all their leaves and toss or burn them. DON’T DO THAT! Those leaves are packed with fertility – chucking them is like throwing away fertilizer. Just don’t do it. In your garden beds, letting leaves fall and rot is a good thing. In fact, you can trench your kitchen scraps right into your garden beds and feed the earth that way. I’ve buried uncoated paper plates, slaughtering wastes, rotten food and other organic matter into fallow beds where it attracts and feeds worms while enriching the soil and providing a boost for the plants that come later.
Another “mess” that’s good for the soil: weeds! It’s good to let some greenery cover the ground, even if it’s not anything you can eat (though some weeds are delicious). Obviously, you don’t want to let pigweed or other noxious plants go to seed in your garden beds; but you don’t have to be a Nazi about keeping the soil bare between plantings. At the very least, toss some cover crop seed down on areas you’re not using. I like to mix rye grass, fenugreek, chickpeas, fava beans, lentils, collards and other seeds from tough plants together and rake them into empty beds. I’m not looking for a harvest – I’m looking to keep life in the soil and protect the ground from leaching, baking by the sun, and erosion. Plus, you can pick and eat what you like, and when you’re ready to plant that bed again, you have green manure you can turn under – or fodder for the compost pile.
Making a mess might rankle some of us – particularly those of us on the neatnik side of the spectrum – but it’s a great way to invite in the good guys, bother the bad guys, and keep the soil healthy.
Sometimes it’s okay to put down the hoe, relax and let things go a bit.