Agarden’s appearance depends on its purpose, says Marlene Condon, and sometimes messier is better. “Aesthetics for me are secondary,” she says. “The most important thing is the quality of the habitat for wildlife.”
Condon is a Virginia-based nature writer and photographer who has penned columns for the Daily Progress and Crozet Gazette, written for C-VILLE Weekly, edited a birding and gardening magazine and published a 2006 book on cultivating nature-friendly gardens. She has spent decades advocating for the practice of landscaping for wildlife—a looser, more freeform gardening style that prioritizes the planet over the plan.
“There is the misperception that you don’t have to do anything at all, but that’s not it,” says Condon. “Landscaping with wildlife in mind uses a traditional three-level structure—flowers close to the house, then shrubs and low trees, then taller trees in back—but it also includes things like brush piles, dead leaves and even a few flowering weeds.” The idea is for gardeners to give up their compulsion for neatness and to embrace what grows naturally in their area instead.
The result is less orderly but more purposeful. “Dead leaves break down and become natural fertilizer, and when all the plants come up you don’t even see them anymore,” says Condon. “Brush piles are incredibly useful. You can keep them 30 feet from the house for safety, and they become a place where birds can hide from hawks or make their nests, and lizards lay their eggs in there. You’ll be shocked by how fast they decompose.”
Condon reserves special scorn for wide swaths of unused lawn. “The problem is, there’s not a lot of habitat potential in a lawn,” she says. “It’s wasting a resource, and the insecticides and herbicides [used on lawns] kill so many animals that are important to the food chain,” particularly creatures with absorbent skin, like salamanders and other amphibians.
“Slugs and snails are your recyclers and are feeding your plants,” says Condon, “and the whole world collapses without insects.” A more natural landscape also means weeding is less of a chore. “Really, the more plants you grow the better, and the fewer weeds you’ll see.”
Condon stresses that protecting the natural ecosystem of the plants, birds, bugs and animals is vital to the future of mankind. “I’m terrified for the future,” she admits. “The whole point of existence is to perpetuate life, and we are losing so many organisms. We absolutely cannot survive without wildlife.”
Even in times of discouragement, however, Condon’s source of solace and joy is her garden, a habitat certified by the National Wildlife Federation. She hopes it can serve as an example of a sustainable, low-impact way for people to coexist with wildlife. “Listen to the birds, the wood frogs,” she enthuses, gesturing widely. “Part of the beauty is hearing all this life. It means the creatures are saying, ‘This is a healthy place for me to live.’”