Stop scaring the gardeners

These are among the perennials I am enjoying now. You can bet I am cutting away old stalks and raking away debris so I can see them.

It’s not that there isn’t plenty to feel bad about these days. Occurrences like yesterday’s horrific fire at Notre Dame cast such a dark pall that it’s easy to be tempted into end-times gloom and despair.

Which is all the more reason that we need to find hope and happiness in the small miracles of nature that we find in our gardens. We need to feel enthusiastic and confident about wresting beauty and sustenance from the landscapes, small and large, that surround us.

But that can be difficult when dark warnings of how gardeners are causing pollinator apocalypse and other disasters hurtle in via social media on a daily basis. As a co-administrator of a local garden group on Facebook, I’m finding that, even on this local level, communication via meme seems to be preferred over actual discussion. (Or, if not memes, then links to dubious-sounding blogs that I’ve never heard anyone refer to anywhere else.) “Don’t clean up your gardens!” is a popular cry, and now it’s not just in the fall, it’s in the spring too. Because in the spring, apparently, we’ll kill all the pollinators still hiding in the garden debris left from fall. If we in Western New York were to wait until consistent 50plus temps to do anything in the garden, nothing would get done until mid-June. Which is kind of late to get the garden going and also takes away well over a month of doing what we enjoy: gardening. And then there are all the “only natives” directives…

To be honest, I pay no heed. I’ve been at this too long. I do as much as I can: whatever makes sense to sustain the creatures and the plants. But then I see an actual worried post from someone who went out in her garden and raked when it was 48 degrees. Fortunately, I have a wise co-admin who has been gardening for many years and she replied: Nobody wants to kill pollinators, or ruin the soil, or destroy the environment, and you won’t. Gardening is fun. It’s the most sensuous activity you can do—PG rated—and you really won’t hurt anything.

She’s right. It’s the people who don’t even know memes like that exist, who have probably never gardened, and who only see the natural environment as something to employ for financial benefit who are really hurting things. We’re not them. So, meme people: Stop trying to scare us and go after the real problems.

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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 regular 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


  1. Do you think an aversion to alarmism is a little but of dire-environmentalism overload, as well as a protective mechanism built into our brains to help us cope with complex / overwhelming subjects such as climate change and extinction? I think there’s a lot of psychology and brain chemistry at play here, as well as the tradition that gardening is supposed to a safe, cloistered space away from larger social issues. But gardens are now at the heart of the trouble — and that’s not depressing or aggravating, it’s liberating and empowering. While many of us here already know the environmental issues, there are so many more that don’t — and for them, it takes 20 exposures to these ideas before they start to seriously consider them. Keep the memes coming.

  2. Hear, hear!! Environmental advocates blaming even us environmentally conscious gardeners reminds me of the Democratic Party shooting itself in the foot with intra-party attacks.
    So yes, let’s go after the real problems.

    • :: reminds me of the Democratic Party shooting itself in the foot with intra-party attacks ::
      This is a poor analogy and worse politics, as well as injecting electoral politics into a discussion that doesn’t have anything to do with it.

      The way forward for people who want to promote gardening techniques that enhance local fauna and food webs is to stress the positives, encourage steps in the right direction, and avoid sweeping, misleading absolutes. I find it hard to believe anyone is seriously recommending not cutting away old hellebore foliage in time for the blooms to be enjoyed, because insects don’t make winter homes in that unpalatable, non-native environment.

  3. Hallelujah! I am so fed up with the memes! They contain 1% truth and 99% BS. If the memes circulating Facebook were actually true, it would be awesome. However, I say 99.9% are bogus and keep being shared which just spreads the lie. They exist to generate $$$. I am in Canada. I belong to a Facebook page called Canadian Gardeners. We have people who own greenhouses, write books, hold seminars sharing helpful info that gets challenged because of the silly memes. The last meme someone posted that had me shaking my head was wrapping tomatoes in Saran Wrap. Expensive and unless your area accepts soft plastics not very environmentally friendly.

  4. You, your grandchildren and all the ones you love will be as affected by the lack of pollinators as the rest of us. There are many other things you can do. Plant bare root. Start seeds. Trim and prune. Be selective about where your clean up first. With a little thought you can do some of both. Most of your garden will survive just fine without mulching if you just let the perennials and native grow in naturally, leaves and all. Try to find best practices, established through research, not fear. Try to keep learning new things not stick to unsound bad habits. Sow clover in your yard to fertilize and avoid harmful chemicals. We live in Syracuse, similar in temperature to Buffalo. The whole next week is above 50 degrees. This is not hard stuff and fun to learn about new research. Join a Master Gardener Program in your area Read new resources. Stay optimistic and learn.

  5. I left leaf littler and stems in my yard all winter, but did a spring cleanup to tidy it all- and I don’t throw any of it away really. I toss it on the compost pile and assume the insects can still emerge from their hiding places in the stems? as long as they are not buried too deeply?

  6. As I was working in the garden yesterday, the child of my neighbors did her usual routine as she jumped on her trampoline: “Hi! Whatcha doing?” “I am pulling weeds,” I replied. She then said, “My dad is going to spray poison on the weeds.” I mumbled “Yikes.” They rent and are not very outgoing, but I am lamenting the missed opportunity to talk to them about this. This is the kind of thing that scares me–indiscriminately spraying poison around children for really no reason at all. Priorities, people. I am all for encouraging people to not be perfectionists in the garden, but there are some areas where this should be emphasized more than others.

  7. I am becoming more and more convinced that a great many of these bug people are not gardeners, have no real interest in gardens or plants and are really looking for excuses to avoid the physical work that caring for the lives of plants requires.

  8. Don’t quite understand. Not cleaning up your garden, if we’re talking plant debris and leaves, is not only good for the soil and lots of creatures, including you. But just like digging, which is also not good for the soil etc people are addicted and unable to give it up.
    So fair enough – do these things and you won’t do very much harm.
    Is that what you mean?

    • I suppose I mean delaying a spring clean-up (having skipped a fall cleanup) is not great for gardeners, who are merely trying to do what they enjoy (I suppose it could be called an addiction). But in the larger sense, this refers to other admonitory or alarmist memes and dubious blog posts, often not backed up by science) that we are getting bombarded with. It’s not just about cleanup.

  9. I think your post might have been more convincing to me had you presented some data on why cleaning up the garden is or is not bad for your garden’s pollinators rather than just saying, “to be honest, I pay no heed.”
    I like your posts, but this one seemed a bit lazy.

    • Thanks for liking my posts, mostly! This one was really about the explosion of admonitory gardening memes and garbage blog posts more than about clean-up, which we have discussed many times before. These memes are mainly reaching gardeners who, for the most part, have flourishing beds of native plants, use no pesticides, and are, generally, doing the best they can. If whoever sends these out really wants to preserve biodiversity and save the planet, they’re talking to the wrong people.

  10. Thank you, Elizabeth! All other points aside, it’s as you say – if people in our region (Finger Lakes here) waited and put off cleanup, we’d never get to do anything until the middle of summer! And I do wish that we could get some acknowledgement of the fact that a lot of nasty pests overwinter in debris; a prime example is the dreaded lily-leaf beetle. The population exploded in years that I wasn’t able to do my usual fall cleanup. When I do a thorough cleanup in fall and early spring, there aren’t enough around to worry about, and I get to enjoy my lilies.

  11. I think we NEED to be scared, very SCARED! We are facing threats of extinction of many of our insect and bird species, which rely on native plants, and on and on–it’s the circle of life, the food chain, the basis of our whole ecology, and it’s broken. Climate change just makes it all worse! I’m not really sure WHAT you’re standing against–misinformation about these issues is just as plentiful as misinformation about anything else on the internet–no more and no less. Everyone with half a brain should know by now how to find accurate and up-to-date information on the internet. Willful ignorance is the problem, and probably even more so the ‘Nero Complex,’ in which we choose to fiddle while Rome burns.

  12. Thank you! I agree that the scare tactics have become over the top. I don’t clean my beds in fall – but I do mow the leaves and grass (Horrors!) and dump the mix into the veggie garden. I clean up the beds in spring (March in my IL garden – shudder!) and all that goes into my veggie garden as well. Then in April, I use my neighbors 1960’s rototiller (Shriek!) and mix it all up (weather dependent). The native birds seem to like my offering of the cut down ornamental grass (Miscanthus – EEK!) leaf blades for their nests, and I assume I have a pretty good biome out there. I don’t think fear is a great motivator except for motivating negatives. I’d rather keep my gardening on the ‘sunny side of life’.

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