06 July 2014

Pruning with Compassion

Pruning is part of gardening. As the saying goes, we must prune to make things grow. So we deadhead flowers. We cut back unruly growth. We manicure our spaces to clean things up a bit and encourage growth the way that we want it.

The problem is, there's a community of living beings that depend on those plants that we choose to clip, and this is doubly or triply true if we have created gardens with native plants.

There are finches that grab seeds from echinacea and sunflower heads held aloft on black ugly stalks. There are giant swallowtails that love parsley that is past its prime for our palates. There are hawkmoth larvae on the coral honeysuckle. Lizards hunting for bugs on the kidneywood. Hummingbirds whose very life depends on getting enough nectar from the patch of turk's cap in the back corner.

This afternoon, I decided that it was time to cut the spent yucca stalks in my front garden. The beautiful cream colored flowers typically bloom in late spring, and they are long done. In their place stood spindly stalks reaching 8 feet or more high, slowly turning brown from the top down. They are ugly at that stage, and perhaps could give the impression that our garden is not, in fact, gardened, but has been left to wild abandon.

I garden for wildlife, so it was really no great surprise when I noticed mid-prune that the stalks were giving shape to the lives or other creatures, namely spiders. There were webs spanning the stalks between yuccas, and I found at least one beautifully grotesque pearl-colored spider hiding in the space where leaf meets stalk.

Now, I'm not a super huge fan of spiders, but I respect their existence. Who am I to swoop in and destroy their life and livelihood with the snip of a pruning shear, for no reason but my since of aesthetics and need to keep up appearances?

I recently noticed that I've developed a habit over the years that I've decided to call "pruning with compassion." It's a practice where I prune, but leave the pruned bits laying around the garden, so that any critters depending on those parts have time to either make their way back to the mother plant or find some new place to do their thing.

I can't do this every time I prune, but it's just an awareness that I try to have of the lives of creatures that I am altering by my actions. And full disclosure here: I do not profess in this post to be able to adore and save every creature. I've been known to squash bugs, throw snails across the yard, and pinch aphids. But sometimes, it just doesn't feel right to do so.

Take the grotesquely beautiful spider hiding in her yucca this afternoon. I became aware of her in mid-snip. Rather than stuff the yucca stalk and spider both into a compost bag, I snipped off the section of stalk in which she was spending her day and left it laying in the garden. When she wakes up to get her hunting duties started this evening, her home will not be the same, but at least she can wander off and figure something new out.

Likewise, when I snipped the coral honeysuckle vines that had overgrown our walkway, I left the cuttings there on the ground by the origin plant. There could be snowberry clearwing moth eggs or even tiny first or second instar larvae on those leaves that I can't see. If I leave them there for a while, those little lives might have a chance to find living plant parts to use. When I cut the parsley, I'm sure to shake it off into the remaining bunch, so any swallowtail caterpillars might fall off and find their way forward.

I'll go back later and grab those parts, or even better, leave them in place to compost naturally.

Like I said, it's hard to be completely aware of every life around me (I mean, do I really care about aphids? Not so much), but it's just a way of looking at things out there in the garden ecosystem. Our whims - like cutting a pretty flower and bringing it to a vase indoors - can complete destroy the life and habitat of some beautiful creature out there depending on it.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, when we garden, we create spaces for other creatures to breath, be born, struggle to survive, mate, raise young, grow old, and die. Just something I try to keep in mind when I'm out there with the pruning shears...


TexasDeb said...

Thought provoking. I often fuss at The Hub for pruning plants and leaving the cuttings where they fall. He calls it mulching in place. I called it ugly. In light of what you've written I believe I owe him an apology.

I've made a point of planting for the wildlife and now I see a need to be more conscious of pruning for it too. Thanks very much for this post!

Rock rose said...

It's a good point and one worth making. I do love wildlife in the garden. And yes it's hard to prune when you know that you are taking away food and home. I try to be selective, cutting back some plants and leaving others. Otherwise, it would be a jungle.

danger garden said...

Than you for a very important reminder.

katina said...

You have no idea how many times I've gone outside to start pruning and then end up spending the day either re-locating bugs, or doing something else that doesn't 'destroy livelihood'. Though I can't abide the zexmenia trying to take over the sidewalk - I have to cut that back, even if the finches love the seed from it. Of course, I only cut it back so it's not on the sidewalk - it's not like I cut it all the way back to the ground.

And just this weekend, I left one stalk of the Brazos penstemon because it's got lacewing eggs on it...of course, I probably should have clipped and it moved it closer to the milkweed so the hatchlings could go crazy on the stupid aphids...

katina said...
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