The Evolution of a Gardener: Finding the Middle Ground Between Neat and Natural


Debbie’s post over at Garden of Possibilities was a catalyst for me to really think over an issue I’ve been having a lot lately – the Neat VS Natural debate. It’s not a debate I’ve been having with anyone else, it’s more been an internal struggle.

You see, the more I learn about gardening, the more I want to garden in a way that’s a little more natural, a little more wildlife-oriented. The problem I encounter is that so much of what I’ve been learning to do for wildlife just looks messy to me. I’m sorry, but it does. Fallen leaves piling up, masses of brown flowerheads and dead foliage scattered about… You don’t spend 15 years running a landscape maintenance company without developing a bit of a neatness fetish in the garden.

I’m not saying I don’t appreciate a bit of intentional leaving it be – the artfully-left seedpods, the carefully-chosen flowerheads that stand brown and proud, and the fallen leaves that are still a lovely array of colors. But when it starts to veer from artfully-placed into the realm of out-of-control, I kind of lose my appreciation for it.

But I haven’t lost my appreciation for native bugs, for the songbirds they feed, the butterflies they become, or the happy thrum of native bees in the summer garden.

So when I hear that a lot of good bugs overwinter in leaf litter, I feel like a jerk for raking it all up and composting it. And I love to watch birds scratching and pecking in the garden, but if I suggest we leave some dead flowerheads and foliage till spring, I worry that my clients will think I’ve lost it.

This is the crux of the issue for me: in my own home garden, I’m cool with lettings things go for a bit. I’m down with a casual look – my chickens have made sure of that! But when gardening for clients, most of them have an entirely different kind of garden. How can I leave fall leaf litter for overwintering bugs in a garden with landscape fabric and wood chip mulch? Suggesting to them that attracting spiders (which will kill off pest insects) should be adequate reason to let compost build up on top of their landscape fabric is hardly going to go over well! In these neatly-kept gardens, deadheads don’t look vaguely romantic – they just look out of place.

Perhaps there are some ways I could adjust the planting scheme so that the soft browns of the autumn and winter garden fit in better, but for this year, right now – how do I reconcile what I know is good for wildlife with what I know my clients’ eyes have adjusted to see?

I could take the easy road and say that I just do what clients want me to do in their own gardens, because that is absolutely true. But it is also true that because I care for so many gardens, I have a real opportunity to make a difference in numerous small ways. Any change I can make is magnified across every garden I care for. This is why I’m reading blogs like Wildlife Garden, Ecosystem Gardening, and Town Mouse and Country Mouse.

Yeah, they’re fun, and interesting, and the pictures are lovely – but what I’m really hoping is that someone, somewhere will have the magic beans that will allow me to find a happy middle ground, that protects and honors wildlife while giving my clients the clean garden aesthetic they expect. Yes, it’d be ideal if we all adjusted our perspectives to see natural beauty as the best kind there is. But until that day comes, I’m struggling with how best to “sell” some of these shifts towards the natural garden to my clients and even myself…

Where do you fall on the neat vs. natural continuum?

Have you learned to love the relaxed feeling of a more natural garden, or do you prefer things to look neat and in their place? Let me know in the comments below.

26 responses to “The Evolution of a Gardener: Finding the Middle Ground Between Neat and Natural”

  1. Thanks for the shout-out Genevieve! Unfortunately, there is no magic bean. Each of us must come to terms with the conditions in our gardens and the reasons why we garden in order to make the best possible choices for us and for wildlife in our gardens. But the more we are able to talk about it, to start conversations and get others to join in the more each of us will be better able to choose what we can do for wildlife in our own little piece of heaven that is our garden. Thanks for having this conversation with me!

    • Carole, Ah! You break my heart! No magic beans, no easy answers, le sigh…
      Thanks for helping so many of us, myself included, examine this issue and really think through what the right answers are. You’re right, it’s very personal and the right answer varies from person to person. Thanks for getting this discussion rolling and giving so much food for thought.

  2. I think this issue is especially magnified at this time of year. In a casual garden (read my own) seed pods, sedum, asters, anything still green looks okay if not I interesting. In the manicured gardens I generally care for, when you cut back the perennials, there does not seem to be enough there to carry the day.

    I find it really hard to cut back the perennials that are powering through this fall and it’s frosts, but when you leave them the garden looks like a sad echo of it’s summer glory. And I also cringe at blowing up all the leaves, every bit of debris in these fall cleanups.

    • Terri, you’re so right. It really is a fall issue, and I think you’ve highlighted an important aspect of it all, which is that in some styles of garden, it looks fitting and OK, even right, to leave these things, and in other styles of garden, not so much! I guess the trick then is to figure out what we can do in those gardens where it doesn’t look good to leave the seedpods and leaves and try to bring their design in a more natural direction in the coming years. Thanks for commenting.

  3. I hear you. I’m learning more about taking care of the earth along with taking care of the garden. I’ve been composting my leaves for a few years. Last year, I chopped them up and left them in place. It makes them appear more like mulch, but probably doesn’t work great for the wildlife that depend on them. I don’t have much ground cover in my garden (I had to pull pounds upon pounds of goutweed to recover my garden) but I think therein lies a solution. If I can design a garden that has depth and height, I can use my whole leaves as mulch and they’ll appear more natural by framing my shorter/smaller plants.

    • Dean, I think that at least some native bugs and spiders can still overwinter in chopped leaf litter, so long as you do it as soon as the leaves are falling and don’t wait till everyone’s settled in for winter! I think that’s an awesome bit of middle ground.

      And I think your design solution, of using depth and height to allow the leaves to look more natural framing the plants, is excellent.

  4. Gen, I was fortunate to get a guided tour of a coastal grassland meadow in Stamford today, along with a few other landscape designers. One of the most fascinating things I learned was how the meadow is ‘strategically’ maintained, always with a sense of compromise to try and keep the interests of various groups in mind. Birders, native plant enthusiasts, the local government (the meadow is on city property), the neighbors and casual visitors looking to get their fix of nature all need to be considered when maintaining the meadow.

    Some factions would prefer the meadow be left completely alone while others simply can’t deal with it during it’s messy, unattractive times. So the meadow is maintained in a way that works for all groups and the compromises are acknowledged and accepted. Even when maintenance is performed, there is still lasting value to the local wildlife. I imagine the gardens you maintain are much the same – better off that you’re maintaining them, and not someone who is unconcerned about these issues, even if you have to make compromises along the way. Remember, it’s all about baby steps!

    • Debbie, you always have such a great philosophical overview of things. Your story about the meadow is lovely. It makes me happy to think that others are finding that happy middle ground and wildlife is still thriving and benefiting. What a beautiful mental picture. Thank you.

  5. I garden much differently than I did five years ago, when I started. Back then, I liked the neat look, the manicured mulched beds, etc. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that this look didn’t suit my lifestyle or our rural setting very well. 90+ trees means that leaves will be a perpetual issue and I’ve learned to live with that somewhat. It also means that there is an abundance of leaves in the fall – an unbelievable amount, that if we simply let them remain as they fall, we’d have one major mess, no matter how you look at it. We don’t get rid of them, however. We chop them with the mower, we allow them to remain at the feet of trees and shrubs and we compost a great deal of them. Many get raked and spread over the field behind us (on the east side of the property, so that the west wind doesn’t blow them back in!). We put the chopped ones on the garden for the winter. It’s been YEARS since we burned a pile of leaves and we have better things to do with them than that now.

    I know I love wildlife more than the average person. My family and neighbors will tell you that. But I also don’t like living in what might appear to be a messy landscape. It would be impossible anyway for me to rid our property of leaves altogether, even if I wanted to. I know the insects and other living things (toads! loads of toads!) that make their homes in the leaf litter, because I encounter them all the time and even with the clean-up we do, there’s no shortage of them, believe me.

    It is indeed an issue to think about and there’s a happy medium to be reached. I believe we can co-exist with nature without one having complete control over the other. I can appreciate your dilemma, Genevieve, in regard to your clients’ wishes.

    • Kylee, can I just say how much I love your thoughtful comment here and your blog post this week on the same topic?
      I can totally respect the balance you’ve found – leaving leaves where they do good in the landscape, and moving them where they don’t help.
      LOL, I wish toads would live in my leaf litter, but my chickens tend to rootle about enough that nothing much finds a place to hide if they can scratch it up! Most uncouth of them, but what can you do?

  6. My garden is too big and I’m too old and lazy to be tidy. Plus, i truly like the natural look. In fact, one reason I got out of tending gardens professionally is, I didn’t like the more manicured look. But to each his/her own! 🙂

    • LOL, Monica, I’m hearing this over and over again – the older you get, the more interest in a wild, natural look! It meshes with my own experience!

  7. I’ve had thoughts along the same line. There is no easy answer–but I guess it really depends on the type of garden you have. A formal garden has no place for messiness, whereas a cottage garden can. But it’s also not that simple..

    • You’re right, so right, about the different styles of garden having room for differing amounts of wildness. A cottage garden does seem to have a bit more room for untidiness, since there is a more formal framework to uphold the feeling of neatness elsewhere.

  8. It’s a funny time of year, my garden is adjacent to my neighbors over the hedge. We’re both busy, I’m dividing, moving, or just outing a few plants I’ve decided I don’t like, but always leave my hyssop, brown, straggly and pathetic looking all winter long. I find birds feeding from them throughout the winter, and I enjoy helping those little foragers find something. She’s the total opposite, cutting back all of the seed heads of her coneflower so they look neater, and also so they don’t reseed. She has less spring cleanup than I do, and we both dearly love our gardens, we just go about it differently.

    • I think you’re so right – we all have to find just the right balance for our own gardens… I do love watching the birdies scratching for seeds in winter.

  9. I sometimes fret about this as well. Yet, I hardly devote a moment to feeling bad about the footprint of my home for some reason. Underneath my home it is very unfriendly to everything but spiders and cats and whatever is unfortunate enough to be feeding the spiders. Perhaps it would be alright to focus on the positive and think of our gardens as a room of our home that is much friendlier to wild creatures than any of our others, even if we keep it as tidy as we must to live happily in it.

    • What a great point, Amanda! You’re so right. As a gardener, I spend my time tweaking what I can do for the world in gardens. But, um, I could probably make some huge leaps environmentally with looking at what I can do in my home too. A timely reminder for winter!!

  10. Genevieve, in my case I’ve found there is a direct corollary between my age and the my desire to go natural in the garden. The older I get, the less fussy I am about neatness. (Hopefully this trend won’t spill over to my personal life and look.)

    • Tom, I think you’re right. I’m 31 and am getting a bit more OK with the wilds coming into my garden every year… And I’ve been mocked twice in the last month for my bedraggled work shoes, which to me still have some life to them, but apparently are getting a little too worm for most people’s tastes. Oh well!!

  11. […] Birds aren’t really attracted to a sterile landscape. If there are some areas of the landscape that are less visible where you can leave leaf litter and duff, make brush piles, or leave logs to rot, that’s a helpful thing to do. However, even a tidy suburban garden can be attractive to wildlife, it’s all about finding the right balance between neat and natural. […]