Native Gardens and Autumn Cleanup – A New Piedmont Aesthetic

Luna moth wrapped in a leaf
Thinking about “cleaning up” those autumn native flora? Hold that thought! I will nearly always encourage actions in the landscaping arena that strike a balance between conserving biodiversity and satisfying human aesthetics. Gratefully, modern gardening and landscaping aesthetics are looking to local contexts more, and relying upon observation, inquiry, and the development of a Sense-of-Place for design inspiration. I am happy to observe that more people are seeing the beauty that pervades the wild places they’ve been taught to fear looking.

Argiope spider cocoon
As for the dead standing stalks, seed heads, and wilting overwinter foliage, they do far more than feed migratory and overwintering birds. While this alone is of great importance, one finds more with a closer look. There are hidden and critical processes taking place, and most of them are indeed important for the fledgling birds of next spring (and other middle food-chain predators like frogs, snakes, salamanders, lizards, toads). The larvae and eggs of beetles, wasps, bees, moths, butterflies, stick bugs, mantids, leafhoppers, grasshoppers, assassin bugs, and many other Arthropoda overwinter on, and inside of, all parts of the plant and the leaf litter beneath. In fact, many interesting insects, like the brush-footed group of butterflies, overwinter as adults in diapause. The eastern comma buttefly, for example, dangles from limbs and stems through the cold days of late winter with wings closed to mimic wilted leaves from the stems of these plants (they are nearly impossible to see). Indeed, when the flora isn’t providing food, it is providing shelter. In winter the dead stalks and all their parts are the genetic life-bridge between autumn and spring for the whole bottom of the food chain and thus, eventually, the upper reaches of it. What’s more is that the very health and capacity of the soil relies upon the in situ wilt and decomposition of the flora that grows upon it.
Swallowtail butterfly chrysalis
This perspective frames Center for Urban Habitat’s approach to fall “cleanup”, and it can serve as a focal point for visitors/users that are new to the subject. If the contents are to be a bit wild, architecture is important. We create balance and clarity by maintaining edges and defined spaces that are clean, cut, straight, sweeping and tidy. This duo, wild+tidy, communicates the fact that we are experimenting with native plant communities and biodiversity conservation within the context of true landscape architecture and gardening. For the benefit of education and conservation, we are proudly and urgently wearing a new Piedmont native aesthetic on our sleeves.

By Devin Floyd, Center for Urban Habitats
Native landscape garden beds bring a bit of straight-edged wildness to Belmont Plaza in Charlottesville. The key to the garden’s success has been allowing it to remain overwinter.