Let there be messy



Compost was apparently the culprit in a New Jersey case where, according to this story:

a blind 69-year-old Cliffside Park man, who weeds and plants by touch, buries in his soil a compost of decaying egg shells, coffee grounds and other kitchen scraps most folks send to the landfills as trash

is being persecuted by his neighbors and local officials for trying to do the right thing. The sad thing is that it’s all too believable. For whatever reason, we here in the U.S. have an unnatural passion for garden neatness. I’ve had personal experience with this: a perennial public garden I worked on with a neighbor was bulldozed by the property owners because it looked unkempt—i.e., didn’t have continuous color in the form of petunias and cannas from May through September. It had foliage without flowers.

But you don’t have to go to the extremes. Too often, I hear from people who cut their hydrangeas to the ground (killing all buds) because they look “bad.” Or I hear from fellow gardeners concerned about anything that has turned brown or has too many seedheads. “I should cut this down, right?” “Leave it alone,” I implore, but I know I don’t stand a chance in the face of dozens of garden “fall clean-up” columns.

And that’s not to mention the front gardens that eschew lawns for vegetables or meadow-like perennials, and then face recriminations from neighbors and officials. We have a garden policing culture here that is hard to conquer.

Let there be messy!

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. …And I once handed out over 400 “Night Lilies” to a number of people. Everyone said that they were beautiful, except for one person, who came to me several years later, claiming that they were a complete waste of time.

    Turns out she had kept the area neatly mowed. Yep… As soon as those green leaves rose up, she chopped them down.

    Then she wondered why no flowers appeared. Just gotta’ keep everything neat… and mowed… and dead!

  2. Sigh. It makes me realize that a goodly portion of the human race is made up either of imbeciles who have never learned about cause and effect or selfish creatures who don’t care if it doesn’t affect them. I’m just glad I can come here to Rant and find some likeminded souls who have a clue. I’m also glad to hear that poor man didn’t lose his case.

  3. I do not agree with gardens full of seedheads when the purpose of most home gardens is for beauty.
    But policing the neighborhood because of well grown, compost mulched etc…..
    too much…………..
    leave my garden alone………
    get a real life…………..
    or I will replace my fencw with corrugated steel fence and my gardns with plastic flamingoes and black top.

    The Troll

  4. My favorite comment came from my across the street neighbor, looking at our much loved fern/native azalea front garden: Is this what happens when you just don’t mow?
    Right lady.

    To each his own….as long as we keep on our own side of the road.

  5. Another casualty of The Fall Cleanup mentality is the garden ecosystem. Many spiders (they consume bugs, remember?) and predator insects are seeking shelter or laying eggs in autumn. If the gardener indiscriminately whacks and trashes, well, there goes the bulk of your free pest control squad for next year.

  6. Oh, goodness! I do like to clean up the perennial beds in the fall just to make them look better for the winter, and also so that I can spread the leaf mulch which is about to be delivered by my nice county– county vacuums leaves in fall, composts them and will deliver them to residents for a nominal charge — actually, about $15 for 5 cubic yards, mostly for the truck. But — I shouldn’t cut down the perennials? What should I do? And I am serious here — if I am losing my insects and other helpers, I would like to know.

  7. Well, many of the seedheads provide bird food, and most of the thinking now, from what I’ve heard, is that they can be left until spring.

  8. As important as bird food is habitat for overwintering butterlies in various stages,as well as lady bugs,native bees and other beneficial insects. In spring eggs hatch ,instars grow,larvae feed after having successfully wintered the worst, lying in wait for aphids and other plant feeders.

  9. My, what people miss! Seed heads and all else perennial stays as is – – for the birds and for us to watch the snow make magic on all that is left.. We head out to give all a haircut before new growth begins.

  10. Another benefit to leaving much of the perennial plant in place over the winter is that the mass acts as a mulch protecting the soil from erosion and protecting plants from extreme freeze/thaw cycles,thus reducing heaving and root loss.

  11. I leave up about 50 percent of the foliage & seedheads up for the winter. This balances the need for aethetics with the human population while leaving food & habitat for the critters. Plus, too many seedheads left up can result (if not eaten first) in too many seedlings the following spring.

  12. I always leave the seed heads… unless I’m collecting seeds, or assembling a fall bouquet! Birds and insects are the rewards (and a dead, sterile, landscape is the result of “neatness”).

    Personally, I can’t understand WHY one would WANT to look at an empty, cleared landscape… there’s nothing there!

    The stark, intricately-shaped stems and seed heads are beautiful… especially when rimmed with frost, or covered in snow, with Goldfinches clinging to them!

  13. In my own defence — let me say that I do NOT clear the landscape, and that it is most emphatically NOT empty. In fact, I sometimes wish I could get it down to close to empty! Where possible, I leave the crown of the plant and its leaves, although frankly I don’t see the beauty of tatterdemalion stalks of beebalm or spent flowerhead heads of Japanese anemones, not to mention soggy sedums — they don’t have any seeds to attract birds, and the first snow pushes them down into a tangled mass that is neither attractive nor romantic. There is plenty of cover left for spiders or mantis eggcases or whatever other good insects winter over, as well as lots of places for slug eggs. My perennial beds make up only a small fraction of my garden, and although I am not wedded to barren tidiness, I do like a little order. There are only a couple of photos on my newly-started blog, but they do give an idea of the kind of gardening this amateur does, after 65 years of practice!

  14. Rosella, seedstalks or no, as long as you bring words like tatterdemalion to the conversation, you are very welcome here!!! (I had to look it up.)

  15. Rosella, the main reason I leave everything is that it’s easier. Much of it will have fully disintegrated by spring, so I don’t have to clean it up.

    In other words, I am lazy. Birds and insects may benefit from that, but I take no credit!

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