the Zen of disorder.


Pile of rubbish you might say? Well yes, that is indeed one way of looking at it. And in my tiny urban backyard, allowing piles of such rubbish to exist seems a foolish waste of space- why leave such an unsightly pile when I could remove it and plant something lovely? It is my inclination to dispose of this pile (especially with San Francisco’s municipal composting, since it isn’t going into a landfill, why not just put it in the green bin?).

But recent readings remind me of the benefits such piles of rubbish, and other dead and decaying matter, can offer to my little garden, and I’m now thinking perhaps I should provide a space for the unsightly as well as for the overtly aesthetically pleasing.

One of the books I’ve mentioned previously, the Xerces Society’s Guide to “Attracting Native Pollinators,” discusses the importance of resources such as this brush pile for a variety of pollinating insect species. Perhaps beetles or mason bees will find these abandoned branches an alluring place to lay eggs. Other critters may find this brush pile appealing as well, such as spiders or any number of decomposing insects, which while slowly decomposing this organic matter will contribute to the soil and improve conditions for plants (well, perhaps, but more thoughts on this another time). The insects and spiders will provide many species of birds, even the seed-eaters, with much-needed protein.

Gene Lodgson (the “Contrary Farmer” found at, wrote a book many years ago called, “Wildlife in the Garden,” and I have found it to be a refreshing and informative re-imagining of backyard gardens and landscapes.  He makes clear that the health and vitality of even the smallest garden is driven not by fertilizers, pesticides, weeding, and the kind of control (which to many a gardener, myself included, often feels like care) but by the connection to the cycle of life that can be cultivated by letting nature be. The Xerces Guide refers to this as “benign neglect.”

Other such examples from my garden are the stumps of trees and shrubs:

lilac stump

various seed heads on flowers and shrubs:

yarrow seed head

I also discovered recently that many species of hummingbirds use lichens to make their nests. I had previously viewed the lichens covering our old azaleas as a sign of their decline, thinking that perhaps if i removed the most affected branches that I could perhaps improve their health and vitality. But understanding this connection with hummingbirds helped me to become settled with (Zen-like, you might say) about such a decline, and see it as the continuation of the cycle of life. Perhaps the azaleas are dying, and these things happen. But in their process of dying, they will help support the life and growth of other parts of my garden.

lichens on old azalea

Perhaps of the most important tools in our gardening repertoire is the power of observation. Slowly looking and seeing, often before taking action I think can often alert us to some of these amazing connections happening right in our own back yard. Nature is indeed everywhere!



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