Garden Notes: Gardeners can help wildlife with their data

And a look at the dark side of avocados — they have cartels.


Sunshine! After weeks of overcast and rain. Winter usually brought deep blue February skies, but now, when we say “winter,” what are we referring to?

Snowdrops and witch hazel, hellebores and species crocus are some of the bright spots within cultivated garden spaces, especially when sunlight lifts them and invites early pollinators. In our eagerness for them, we need not ignore what is happening around us, out in the natural world’s greater garden.

Gardens as habitat

Or habitats as garden? This is what Jennifer Owen has done in her U.K. garden. Although trained as a zoologist, Owen, by proclivity an amateur ornithologist and gardener, has noted and taken census of the insect and vertebrate life of her garden over a period of 30 years (

“Owen achieved the recording of 91 of the 256 species of hover flies in Britain in 14 years. In 30 years of study, she recorded 2,204 insect species in her own garden, while also finding 20 species new to Britain, and six which were previously undescribed. She wrote a book on the study, “Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty-Year Study.” As well as the insects she counted, Owen grew over 400 different plant species to determine the best food for the insects being tracked.”(Wikipedia).

Owen’s efforts result in the confirmation that without efforts of private gardeners, with their garden spaces and eco-awareness, much of the wildlife her data enumerated would have had no habitat and no future.

New ideal

Get outdoors, look up, look down, and listen. Among the treetops, there is a renewed fluttering of bird activity. The topmost branches of swamp maple are beginning to color, and on the oaks, clustered buds are enlarging. At ground level, tangles of native briars (Smilax) are a greening maze; the basal foliage of goldenrods and asters, and other overwintering perennial forbs, looks surprisingly alive (because it is), against the brown of past years’ dead leaves.

Messy really is the new ideal. Googling “messy gardening” results in multiple pages of thoughtful garden writing. Many who garden recount that in their gardening evolution, they regret they had been unable to give themselves permission to be messy. Oh sure, there are still lots of archaic garden aesthetics, “shoulds” and “oughts,” that hold sway in the gardening world. Maybe some of them are appropriate, for parks, or the Boston Public Garden.

Here in the Northeast, as we eliminate what existed before suburbanization and BosWash took over, gardeners and their gardens are positioned to be stewards of the valuable remnants. Even fragmented, as they are, they supply habitat.

Nature’s mulch

When those dead leaves are left in place, they are nature’s mulch. Wait before clearing debris away; now is still too early. This layer inhibits the germination and growth of unwanted cool-weather volunteers, such as henbit, spitting cress, vetch, and chickweed, which would require removal later.

Dead leaves and other debris hold moisture; they soften soil, they incubate countless macro and micro invertebrates and life forms that inhabit living soil. They break down to become the humus that anchors all vegetation, and are water breakers for the pounding of heavy rains, which are still likely to come our way.

On the other hand, if this protective natural mulch is nonexistent, or has been removed, it is a good idea to replace now with laid mulch.

Messy gardening bonus

Attempting to gather some background about messy gardening led to this interesting aspect of monarch butterfly behavior:

The link documents monarch butterflies probing dead plant material, such as boneset, for chemical substances the monarchs obviously require.

It was assumed previously that this observed behavior was simply random resting or perching. Contemplate how obsessive tidiness, and removing such dead material in your garden, might have damaged its otherwise monarch-friendly habitat!


Afflictions of houseplants are often chronic, even perhaps endemic on certain plant species: scale on citrus, whitefly on fuchsia, etc. Control, not outright extermination, is the achievable goal, while not poisoning the indoor environment. Checking for flower spikes on clivias, I instead found signs of some sort of foliar problem. Leaves had slightly mottled or stippled patches. The expert I consulted thought possibly a virus or insect; check leaves’ undersides, where insect activity often takes place. (It appeared to be hort-oil-susceptible mealybugs.)


It is a good time to check through winter storage vegetables, as six to nine weeks may have passed since harvest.

Garlic that has begun to sprout is still usable, but do it at once, if possible. Sprouting onions may have usable parts, and the tops are also usable; do not discard. Advice on potatoes taken from “The Joy of Cooking”: Remove poisonous sprouts carefully from old potatoes; soak them for half an hour in autumn, and from one to two hours in winter and spring.


Many Island gardens contain harvestable material for winter soups and salads. Parsley, cilantro, rapini, kales, hardy lettuces, and leeks are just some that climate change allows now, without needing any special fixtures, such as cold frame or tunnels. With those, even more is available for winterlong harvest.

And winter salads? Many of us like to enhance them with avocados. In Super Bowl season, everyone wants this tropical fruit — including armed cartels, apparently. “Letter from Cherán: Forbidden Fruit,” by Alexander Sammon (Harper’s, November 2023), is informative and disturbing, as it describes what is occurring in order for us to have those delectable avocados in our guacamoles, salads, and smoothies.

In a mirroring of drug cartels’ tactics and dynamics, avocado-growing parts of Mexico are held captive by avocado cartels’ armed takeover. Cartels invade and scalp land (including monarch-butterfly-wintering forests) by force to plant orchards.

They then overpump water resources to irrigate them. The locals are left with environmental havoc. Sammon reports on the disruptions of local livelihood, ecology, and hydrology. In response, the Cherán area has mounted its own armed militias to defend itself from marauding cartels.