If you want to support the natural environment in your garden, you have to decide where you fall along the order to chaos spectrum. Clearly, a gardener who is trying to provide ecological niches for insects and wildlife is not going to produce a Versailles-like symmetrical tapestry of plantings (not that many of us aspire to that level of control, not to mention maintenance). But even the most nature-oriented gardener also wants a garden that is aesthetically pleasing, if only to avoid shocking the neighborhood.
Whatever your chaos tolerance, winter is a good time to assess the features that provide visual order in the garden: structural elements like hardscape, fences, and other edges, as well as your plants, especially larger ones like trees, shrubs, and sometimes grasses. Winter simplifies the look of things, so you can see the “bones” more clearly. In my case, I have had to rethink parts of my garden following major changes to the property next door, including a new wooden fence that redefines the whole look of that area. Whether changes are sudden and dramatic (like a new fence or the loss of a tree) or slowly unfolding (like the change in sun exposure as new trees grow), the visual simplification of winter helps us contemplate our next moves in response.
It is also a good opportunity to clarify the garden’s design, both on the ground and in the mind. As an ecologically minded gardener, I let the leaves mostly fall where they may in woodsy areas, and in most beds I let the perennials stand through winter to provide wildlife food and habitat. For really tall plants or excessively enthusiastic self-seeders, I may need to cut back to about 2 feet, leaving the stalks for insects to nest in. To keep this approach to gardening from looking chaotic, maintaining clear edges is helpful. For instance, I often use short logs as edging to wood chip paths, which allows me to adjust paths when I want; the logs help hold moisture at bed edges and provide protected space for things like Christmas ferns to volunteer. The tradeoff is that the logs and chips also welcome less desirable plants, and the logs eventually require replacement as they decompose. In the milder days of winter, I can tidy up by removing or moving unwanted volunteers in my paths (and elsewhere!), replacing the most decomposed edging logs, and refreshing the wood chips that make up the paths. With luck, while I’m at it, I might prepare for possible spring planting by weeding and mulching those areas now.
Similarly, if any standing plant stalks had been flopping into the paths, I need to decide whether the answer is to cut things back more aggressively in future, or perhaps, as suggested in a presentation I saw recently, add a border of shorter plants to provide a visual frame for the more rampant tall ones. Maybe I could find some seeds to winter sow for this purpose? (See my winter sowing article in the February 2019 bulletin.) There’s a New Year’s resolution: assess and figure out how to address those things that tried to slip toward chaos during the growing season.