Reading Around - In Praise of Thickets

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By Dave Coulter

Rough Edges

Yes, yes, as many of you know the topic of hedgerows is never too far from my mind.   It’s not for nothing after all that this little blog-space is named Rough Edges. It’s been awhile since I’ve written about the landscape value of rough edges, but I  have recently gotten a couple of flashes of inspiration.  Lucky readers, your patience for the eccentric is about to be rewarded.

Last month I exchanged a few emails with Andy Schmitz the Director of Horticulture at the Brenton Arboretum in Dallas Center, Iowa.   Our correspondence touched on Osage-orange trees and hedgerows.  The Brenton Arboretum  features these trees in their collection (woo-hoo!).   I sent him the article I’d written about hedgerow preservation, which led to a further exchange about habitat loss when these features are removed from the landscape.    What caught my eye in one of his emails was a list of  non-native and native invasive plants that he‘d recently removed from under a weeping crabapple out there: 

Poison ivy, Virginia creeper, Wild grape, Black Cherry, Common Hackberry, Gray Dogwood, Mulberry, Cat Briar, Eastern Redcedar, Eastern Cottonwood, and Multiflora rose...

And Andy wrote:  “Just imagine what that crabapple would like if I did not pull out all these seedlings plants, 10 to 20 years from now it would be a bird paradise, a place of great cover along with plenty of food…”

My recollection of that exchange was stirred today by the sight of this essay The Untidy Garden  published in Conservation (which is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine). Well, maybe the interplay of skinks and gardens in New Zealand seems trivial, but this excerpt I think has some universal relevance:  

“Skinks and probably many other small species benefit from messy habitat, however cultural norms play a strong role in reinforcing traditional values of neatness among home owners, with the result that an apparent lack of care or disorderliness in gardens can be perceived as undesirable and socially unacceptable.” And “pesticide and herbicide use may be more prevalent in tidy gardens as well as higher levels of human disturbance, both of which are likely to have detrimental impacts on skinks and their prey.”

So here in the Northern Hemisphere as we put our gardens to bed for the winter let us pause to consider the value of the small rough edges, the thickets, and the creatures that depend on them.   Virtually as I type these words the northern birds are coming back to winter in balmy Chicago.   Juncos and Pine Siskins, Snow Buntings and Crossbills all need places for cover.  

Go ahead and be a little messy. 

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