Reasons to Let that Garden Go to Seed

There is a theory that putting your garden to bed for the winter is an overrated chore. There are factual and fanciful reasons for letting it go to seed.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

OK. Forget everything you think you know about balanced or objective reporting. This next report is totally biased.

KETZEL LEVINE: I have no interest in putting my garden to bed. I think it's a highly overrated chore. So I'm off in search of evidence to support the wisdom of letting the garden go to seed.

INSKEEP: There's your warning. Here's NPR's senior correspondent Ketzel Levine.

LEVINE: I'm going to start at a famous garden south of Portland, Oregon, called Bella Madrona.

Where are we headed?

Mr. GEOFF BEASLEY (Bella Madrona Nursery): We're going to this clematis orientalis, and just want to take a look at this incredible little old man with the beard and wild hair.

LEVINE: He looks a little like Cousin It, the bearded man that is, not my host, Geoff Beasley, who is now gently handling a puff ball of a seed head belonging to what was a yellow clematis. This longhaired ball of fuzz is the payoff for the gardener who lets things go to seed, and proof of Geoff Beasley's talent for strategically letting things go.

Now here's a plant that ages really well, and this has got huge stalks of little pussy willows all over the edges of it.

Mr. BEASLEY: Oh yeah. That's (unintelligible) pussy willows. This is a giant sea holly.

LEVINE: It'd be a crime to cut down the sea holly just because it's finished flowering, the same with the sedum, the spirea, the hydrangea and the thousands of plants on this property that need not fear being past their prime. And this isn't about Geoff Beasley not wanting to clean up. This is the guiding hand of the gardener.

Mr. BEASLEY: I've always felt like I needed to do something like picking crumbs off the carpet, you know, before the…

LEVINE: Before the guests come?

Mr. BEASLEY: Yes. And not only am I mature but the garden is so mature, and it's kind of achieved this sense of itself that is so strong when people come that I feel like it doesn't require the kind of upkeep for that to get across.

LEVINE: I'll take that as a vote for leaving the crumbs.

(Soundbite of footsteps through mud)

Hope you can hear that - it's the slap of rubber boots on mud. We're now 30 miles east of Portland at a veritable bastion of tidiness, the family farm.

Mr. ANTHONY BOUTARD (Ayers Creek Farm): Farmers are neat freaks. There is a view in the farming world that a neat farm is a prosperous farm.

LEVINE: So what does it say when farmer Anthony Boutard decides to experiment with a little chaos? It says I've hit pay dirt here at Ayers Creek Farm.

Mr. BOUTARD: This year we looked at our field and said, what if I just left it and didn't go into this frenetic attempt to clean it up and put it in a cover crop and do all the right things, quote-unquote. Just let it rest for a few months in a kind of a weedy condition.

LEVINE: Now we're only talking about a few long rows out of a 144-acre organic farm. In and among what's left are desiccated tomatoes, bright red against frost-blackened stalks. But it's what you can't see that interests Anthony Boutard - the benefits of undisturbed soil.

Mr. BOUTARD: If you keep that soil covered, the worms come up, you've got all the beetles and insects working there. And we always tend to think of how we're helping our enemies. And so a lot of gardeners think they have to clean everything up because there are places for slugs to hide. Well, the reality is even the cleanest garden has trouble with slugs. And they'll hide anywhere they can find, and you can't get rid of them. But you can, more often than not, get rid of your friends.

LEVINE: I'll take as a vote for letting the leaves fall where they may. OK. Onward to the small backyard sanctuary of Sally West(ph), who tucks her soft white hair into her hood as we step out into the bone-chilling rain.

LEVINE: I don't want to keep you out here too long but I…

Ms. SALLY WEST (Gardener): (Unintelligible).

LEVINE: Mrs. West points out her garden's quiet beauty. The delicate white camellia blossoms, the pink buds of a sweet viburnum. And she marvels at the last few flowers on an otherwise spent and leggy impatiens.

How do you think your tolerance for things not getting done has changed over the years as a gardener?

Ms. WEST: When I started, I wanted it to look perfect. Now it just doesn't have to be perfect anymore. Lots of things don't have to be perfect anymore.

LEVINE: Look at the old fruits on your tree there.

Ms. WEST: You know, I kind of like those things on that styrax.

LEVINE: It's almost like it's a memory of how many flowers you had this summer.

Ms. WEST: Yes. It was so gorgeous.

LEVINE: So my questions is, why rush it? If the garden's last gasp still tells memorable stories, I say leave the sodden mess for the microbes, the memories, and the rest for the birds.

Ketzel Levine, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And if you need any further convincing, just take a tour with Ketzel through “Seed Heads in the Garden,” one of her picks for this holidays best gift books. You can peruse them all at NPR.org/holidays.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos.

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