Garden Sloth: Fall Clean-Up…Or Not

by Elsa Johnson

IMG_2556 Most of us were brought up to think good gardening means a yard that is all cleaned up and neat-as-a-pin. To this end we blow all the leaves out of our gardens and remove every bit of organic debris – the leaves, the floppy stalks, the gone-to-seed-heads of various grasses and flowers.  We take all of this organic material and get rid of it, or hire someone to get rid of it. As if the aural assault of leaf blowers all summer has not been enough, in fall it ratchets up even more. How do we stand it?

The answer is : we don’t have to. We should be keeping all that good but messy stuff on site. To pay someone to cart it away is like giving away gold (on several levels).  What??? ! …You say.

Yes — a messy garden is a good garden for lots of reasons.  You don’t see mother-nature out there with a leaf blower (well, yes, there’s the wind). The leaves fall, the other vegetative debris topples onto them, and over time this material decays, adding stored nutrients and organic bio-mass back to the earth. This is how you grow soil that doesn’t need annual applications of manufactured chemical ferilizers to help plants to grow.

Part one is: it helps to have an area where you can stockpile vegetative debris, preferably somewhere out of sight.  Ideally this is a compost pile where you put your other vegetative organic wastes.  Part two is you can bed down some of your plants for the winter under a blanket of leaves.  If you can shred the leaves, that’s even better; they will break down faster. Some lawn mowers can do this. Leaf mulch under shrubs can be left on all year-round.

And if you leave some seed heads on at least some intact perennials, the beneficial birds and insects will thank you (dropping a tiny note through the mail slot) … the birds for leaving a food source, and the beneficial insects for leaving a place to lay eggs and overwinter. But be careful to choose native plants for this purpose and avoid non-native or invasive plants.

If you must tidy up the garden, make it a part of the garden where neatness really matters to you (what will people say?!).  Be strong. Walk away.