Putting the garden to bed: Let it sleep with natural covers
September 22, 2005
This time of year there is an urge to prepare for winter. My father used to put up the storm windows and check the furnace. My mother and stepfather still do their fall cleaning and put the flower garden to bed on schedule. Whether you call it putting the garden to bed, fall cleanup, or winterizing, it is a time-honored garden ritual.Gardeners pull up shriveled tomato and zucchini plants in the vegetable garden, cut flowering plants to the ground and rake up all the leaves and debris around them and off the lawn, and then stuff everything into giant plastic bags to set on the curb for the trash truck. If we’re really diligent, or are using a landscaping service, we’ll throw some fertilizer around and then smother every bit of bare earth with thick layers of purchased mulch. All this entails lots of shopping, of course, from the special bizarre jack-o’-lantern trash bags to the infernal leaf blower, from fertilizer to forests of bagged shredded trees. But is it really necessary? What purpose does it serve?The gardening year, like our life, moves in cycles we honor with rituals. Raking leaves in fall is one, and we risk riling our neighbors if we fail to participate, especially if some of our leaves, as leaves do, migrate to their lawn. A garden is an artificial place, separated from wild places by the hand of the gardener; whether consciously or by neglect, our yards and gardens are what we make them, and activities need not justify themselves.That said, it doesn’t mean we can’t – or shouldn’t – look to nature for clues on how to proceed. First of all, astonishingly, the glorious beauty of our autumn is free for the looking. No special equipment or clothing is necessary to appreciate it, not even a credit card. (Keeping it beautiful for future generations will cost us, but that’s another story.)Secondly, autumn is not an event but a slow process. The leaves don’t fall all at once. Can you imagine what it would be like if they did? Would it sound like a glacier calving? The flames of the flowers aren’t extinguished all at once, like a campfire doused with dirt. Plants don’t die the minute they are assured of progeny and have finished blooming.All the plant material that is sloughed off in fall and winter falls to the ground. The wind blows it around, mixing it up, drifting it around to catch in shrubs, grasses and the skeletons of plants, where it slowly rots.Unless you live where there is reliable, insulating snow cover all winter, which higher altitudes such as Aspen typically have, please, I beg of you, don’t strip you perennials naked in the fall! Let them collapse into themselves and collect the leaves that come there, forming their own special mulch. When the wind blows away any trace of humidity and the temperature alternately plummets and soars, the tangled dead vegetation shelters the vulnerable crowns and roots. It traps snow so it takes longer to melt and provides added insulation. The interwoven layers of stems, twigs and leaves make a springy cushion between the crowns of perennials and the sharp, grinding hooves of deer – think spike heels on carpet over your good wood floors – as well as creating a little obstacle course when they’re looking for something to eat.Raking leaves and cleaning up plant litter doesn’t do the plants any favors.There are actually some interesting controlled scientific experiments being done that indicate plants may thrive best when nourished by their own litter. I suspect they need the litter from their whole plant community to flourish. Why would you remove this natural mulch from your garden and then turn around and buy commercial mulch? You generally don’t know where it came from, and some tree mulch retards plant growth and even kills some plants.If you’ve tried it you’ll find it is almost impossible to keep the recommended 4- to 6-inch layer of mulch away from the crowns of the plants. If it isn’t protecting the most vulnerable part of the plant, why go to the trouble and expense? Is it worth it to satisfy a weird aesthetic that values neatness above any other consideration? Where we live, putting the garden to bed is busy work. It may be good for the economy, but not for the plants.It is better to wait until the new growth emerges in the spring before cutting plants back and cleaning them up. I have a sneaking suspicion that it would be even better for the plants if they were never cleaned up at all. Look at the weeds!I admit that I am not even remotely ready to forsake all grooming. Would I still have a garden if I did? Besides, what would the neighbors say? Oh, and by the way, if you insist on raking up your leaves, let me know, will you, so Gerry can come and collect them for our compost.Does anyone still have storm windows?Anna is putting her column to bed for the year so she can spend more time with her garden in Basalt, but she’d love to hear from you any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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