Heading around the bend to fall, there are plenty of seasonal chores popping up on a gardener’s to-do list. For a wildlife gardener, however, it seems that the not-to-do list may be just as long.
While we instinctively want to remove dying flowers and stalks from our garden beds as they fade, wildlife gardeners know it’s best to preserve any that have seed heads, such as sunflowers and coneflowers, until spring. The same goes for berry bushes. Any lingering seeds and fruits will be a welcome treat for foraging birds and other small animals as winter wears on.
Landscape designer and wildlife gardener Justin Durango has a few chores to accomplish in his own half-acre yard in West Raleigh before beginning his fall planting efforts. But reseeding a large lawn won’t be one of them.
That’s because he has shrunk his turf grass lawn to less than 500 square feet and replaced it with ornamental plants, fruit-bearing shrubs and trees, and a series of walkways.
“My fall chores include cleaning up some of my cool season ornamental grasses as they are getting ready to put on their flush, to give them room to grow,” says Durango, whose landscape design company is Garden Harmony. . “I will also open up my walkways by trimming up any flower heads that have fallen over and trimming back overgrown vines.
“I try to leave up as many seed heads and herbaceous perennials as possible to serve as shelter and food for animals. I like to leave tubular flowers like hibiscus, too, because spiders and other small insects like to burrow into the tubes.”
It’s easy for Durango to wait until spring to trim back his bushes because the natural look is the aesthetic he is most comfortable with.
“I know it’s hard for some people to walk through and see remnants of last spring’s garden, but I just see the next phase of the seasons, and that is pleasing to me.”
Neatniks who want to get their yards totally trim might consider forming a pile of brush and dead limbs in an inconspicuous spot to give animals an alternative habitat for winter.
Shifting toward natural gardening in increments is another way to get past the assumption that neatly trimmed grass is the only way to achieve an attractive lawn.
“When I bought my house eight years ago, the lot was dominated by turf grass,” he says. “I shrunk it by taking nibbles at a time, expanding garden beds and extending walkways.”
He also suggests “zoning” your yard by going with traditional grass in the front and a more natural look along the sides or in the back. Using ornamental grasses to edge a formal lawn can soften the boundary and help it blend smoothly into natural areas, he says.
It pays to consider how and whether the lawn fits into your lifestyle.
“Remember that the formal, tidy area needs only to be as big as you really need it to be,” he says. “If you are going to get out and throw the ball with your kid every day, you may need more lawn. But if it’s only a couple times a year, maybe you could just go to a park.”
The trade-off is reduced energy costs and maintenance. Time not spent mowing, feeding and weeding can be spent on other, more appealing pastimes.
And if, like Durango, you are trading a sterile lawn for a landscape rich with wildlife plants and edibles, the results can be stunning.
“The yard I have on Lakeside Drive is really natural and organic,” he points out. “I have focused on a blend of ornamentals and edibles. I started off as a flower geek, tried to collect as many ornamentals as I could, then became intrigued with producing food, starting with apple trees.”
Today, his lot contains – among other things – persimmon trees, elderberries, golden raspberries, gogi berries, fig trees, plums, asparagus and – for now, at least – a patch of zoysia grass
“Zoysia is a real vigorous thick-thatched warm season running grass that needs full sun,” he says. “I don’t water or fertilize it or use fungicide. I just walk on it and mow it now and then.”
But even that bit of lawn might be temporary for a man who thrills to the sight of a fruit tree in bloom or the smell of ripe blueberries. Durango admits to daydreaming about replacing the remaining lawn with additional native plants “some day.”