There are signs of spring all around. My least favorite harbinger of spring has got to be the big piles of yard waste bags lining curbs all over town with leaves, sticks, and grass spilling out their tops. Even if you’re maintaining your landscape for wildlife you’ll probably end up with some excess organic matter at some point, but boy do we throw out a lot of good usable material! Getting your money’s worth on those sticks and leaves may mean tolerating some rough edges and unruliness for a while, but have you forgot the season? It’s spring! It’s a wonderful mess!
After months of waiting the spring season managed to sneak up on me. I spent the better part of February and March in a sort of late winter hibernation. Just when I’d convinced myself we weren’t going to get serious winter weather here in Louisville and I’d emotionally moved on from snow and invigorating sub-zero winds for the year we got six straight weeks of exactly that. I retreated indoors and lost myself in small carpentry projects and the sorting and resorting of old books. Then about a week ago, only a few days after a foot of snow had been on the ground, it was 72° with clear skies. I sat on my porch for a long time in the strong rays of the sun. After months of outdoor time defined by brisk walking, hunched shoulders, closely drawn hoods and toboggans, and eyes squinted against bitter wind I had the sensation of cobwebs slowly being cleared from my head and senses. An inner thaw, if you will.
When I felt ready for some yard work I busied myself with clearing out my garden beds from last year. What better way to begin the spring as your mind clears of its winter cobwebs than by clearing your garden and yard out of its own cobwebs, the rattling hollow stems and dried out leaves of last year’s spent perennial growth. Some people clear this growth out in the fall in the name of “tidying” up for winter, but this is not work for the end of a long year when your enthusiasm for the garden has grown tired. And the dead plant growth does all kinds of good things through winter. Not only do the dried out plant forms help moderate surface soil temperature and provide much needed visual texture in the winter but they provide invaluable shelter for wildlife. Small mammals and birds find cover from predators and a buffer from the harsh winter weather plus food from whatever seeds are leftover, and some insects overwinter in or attached to dead plant matter (such as the fascinating Goldenrod Gall Fly).
The most personally satisfying function that old plant matter serves for me, however, comes after it’s been cut. I chop and break it up and then lay it right back into the garden bed as mulch. As most gardeners are aware, a layer of dead and decaying organic matter on the top of the soil is crucial for creating healthy soil. Go to any established woodland or field and you will find this layer several inches deep full of sticks, grasses, and leaves. But the vast majority of American landscape beds create this layer with chopped and crushed wood chips spread from plastic bags sold at the local hardware store. I hope to never waste another day of my life raking and bagging humus-rich organic matter from a landscape only to replace it all with heavy bags of imported wood chips. If everyone seems to agree that one of the hallmarks of a good-looking landscape bed is some smooth freshly laid much I say always be skeptical when a culturally accepted norm that’s a roundabout way of accomplishing a naturally occurring process fosters consumerism. It’s true that if all the plants in a bed are young and spaced far apart there likely won’t be enough plant matter to cover the whole bed for a few years and you’ll need to supplement, and if there are a lot of older specimens then there may be too much and a need to clean it out every few years, but overall it works just as well as it does in nature. And if the landscape beds look like a jumble of chopped-up dead plants for a few weeks before new growth comes in, you might as well celebrate that as in fitting with the season. (Note: care should be taken with seeds. Many gardeners remove seeds in the fall if they don’t want plants to spread, and I’m extra careful with anything I spread on my vegetable garden.)
“Use the natural carbon cycle! Work more efficiently!” These were the victorious thoughts charging through my head as I cut back the modest growth from my young bluestems, coneflowers, milkweeds, and mountain mints and spread it out on a section of garden that had grown thin on mulch and muddy. I was soon reminded that mulch is not the only reason to save our spent perennial growth, with their diversities of shape, texture, size, color, and flexibility. Not two minutes after I finished I spied a little songbird which alighted on a horizontal coneflower stem in my pile. It rooted around in the debris, tossed some material this way and some material that way and then flew off with an old strand of prairie dropseed grass in its beak. Nest material, future cushion for small eggs and then tiny birds. They won’t complain about the haphazard state of my gardens.
I’m a novice birder but I think it was a Chipping Sparrow. I waited for a while with the camera in hopes of a picture but it didn’t return. In lieu of a photo of that little fellow I’m sharing my favorite image featuring birds and the spring season: The Rooks Have Returned by Alexei Savrasov. Why this 19th-century painting? First of all, the painting shows a landscape our urban and suburban yards could learn from: the kind of landscape an ecologist looks at and sees the ubiquitous human influences on the land and fauna, and that an architect looks at and sees the obvious influences of the natural world on all the human layouts and built structures. What I also love about this painting, besides the title, is that it shows such an honest portrayal of spring and by that I mean a messy one. Here we see as foreground what is likely more often a backdrop for the small cluster of buildings below. Wouldn’t someone standing on the front steps of the church most often turn their eyes towards the vast expanse of open space in the distance than toward this small grove of trees? Alexei Savrasov shows with this painting that he understands the way the natural world fills in space all around us. One who wants to find the signs of spring need look not just at the melt well under way in the fields but notice the rooks out back. They’d probably be heard first. You’d pull on some boots and stroll up the hill to check things out and what do you find? A mess. Water pools on slushy melting snow. Broken branches and sticks litter the ground, possible victims of a winter ice storm. They are joined by debris from feeding birds. The smooth blanket of white snow is a distant memory. Bird tracks cover the ground, hinting at the mud and soggy soil beneath. The rooks are making an absolute racket. There’s probably bird poop all over the snow. But even though the shadows are growing long the days are growing even longer. The sun would have been down by now several weeks ago. How wonderful the way it comes through those rolling clouds, the kind of clouds it seems are always accompanied by smooth breezes.
Look at that scene. Tell me you don’t know a spring day exactly like it. Tell me it didn’t make you glad to be alive. Go outside and revel in your spring garden. A little bit of mess and chaos in the spring never hurt a soul.