Organic Gardening: Dead wood in the garden keeps it lively
As we approach the solstice, it’s a good time to think about the garden year as a whole. The first, anxiously awaited tomato is now four months in the rear-view mirror and most of us won’t be getting to work again in our gardens until at least March. But a good garden attracts visitors all year, from birds coming to feed on the seed heads of dead perennials to insects and amphibians who overwinter underground or in plant debris.
Creating a home for these creatures is a worthy goal for the organic gardener who wants to work in concert with nature to create a healthy place not just for her favorite plants, but for unexpected visitors and the billions of micro-organisms that make up the soil food web. One way to do this is to leave plenty of dead wood in the garden. Decaying wood provides homes for countless organisms including insects, worms, fungi and birds. As it rots it slowly enriches the soil adding loads of carbon-rich organic matter. Although this might offend our sense of order, there are plenty of practical and decorative ways to use dead and decaying wood that can have long term benefits for soils and ecosystems.
One of the easiest ways to use dead wood is to make a border with split logs around a perennial garden. Log pieces can simply be plopped down along the edged or buried slightly to make sure they hold fast against lawnmower and foot traffic. For a more architectural look, round-sections of logs or large branches can be cut and buried on end with about half of their width beneath the ground to create a low wall.
Wattle fencing is a good way to use large and small branches to build rustic fences for preventing erosion or hiding compost or rubbish piles. Certain types of wood like willow are preferred for this, but more or less successful versions can be created with almost any branches. You will need some larger branches, about an inch and a half in diameter. Cut these a foot longer than desired and sharpened the ends so that you can drive them into the ground every foot or so, burying them to the desired height. Smaller branches are then woven between these supports. Make sure to alternate the direction of the branches so that the tip end of one lies on the base end of the next. Push each branch down as you go and cut of the ends with a pair of loppers when you’re finished to make clean edge.
Even simpler uses of dead wood in the garden include using logs and stumps as structural elements to add a sense of weight or permanence to the garden. This works especially well if you have an English style garden where plants are arranged informally. A log or piece of stump left to lie in the perennial bed will give the impression that the garden has been there for a long time especially as it gathers moss or lichen.
Snags or standing trees that have died can be another especially important element for wildlife. Although these should be cleared if they pose any danger, those that are a safe distance from houses and power lines can create homes, lookouts and food sources for birds.
The various uses of dead wood are also a natural fit for the perennial garden because of what we now know about soil science. Where annual vegetable plants often prefer a bacterially dominated soil that can be produced by adding nitrogen in the form of manure and compost, perennials prefer a soil that is high in fungal organisms created by the application of carbon. Dead logs, branches and mulch are great sources of carbon, attracting fungal organisms that lower the pH, hold onto water and nutrients and add copious amounts of organic matter in the long term. After all, these perennial plants come from the forest and meadow where there isn’t a gardener to come along and tidy up. “Mother nature is the ultimate designer,” as my friend, the native-plant gardener Cheryl English likes to say. By adopting some of her designs we can make plants and garden visitors feel more at home.
Brian Allnutt is a freelance writer and organic gardener in Metro Detroit. You can reach him at email@example.com.