Garden Coach's Blog for Gardeners

Rethinking the Fall Cleanup

By: gardencoach, 8:05 PM GMT on October 13, 2011

Gardeners love to talk about their gardens, and the conversation inevitably turns to the season – the one just past, the one to come: it certainly was an unusually cool summer, a wet spring, hard to believe it’s already Fall, did this plant bloom early or late, was the apple crop abundant or poor.

Fall begins with the Autumnal Equinox, and for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the significance is profound: a certain unmistakable fragrance in the air, a softness to the light from the slanting rays of the sun, shorter days, plants covered with dew in the morning because of increasing moisture in the atmosphere, fruits and vegetables the end of their productive period.

Gardeners are acutely aware of the changes of seasons and what those changes mean. It’s a reflective season because while it’s harvest time, it’s also time for many of the plants that produce the fruit and vegetables we harvest to die and decompose. The annuals and perennials that brought glorious blooms in summer are winding down. The leaves of deciduous trees, shrubs, and perennials are beginning to change color, providing us humans with a glorious display, but will eventually lose their grip, and fall to the ground.

This is also the time of the long-honored tradition of the Fall Cleanup. We are instructed in many garden magazines, newspaper columns and websites to remove all debris from the ground, cut back plants, all in service of getting ready for winter, when apparently nothing happens, and the garden lays fallow or simply in limbo.

But aren’t the experts forgetting something? It turns out that we are not alone in the garden, but in the company of countless birds, insects, bacteria, fungi and other living critters whose survival depends on us. If we denude our gardens of all the seeds, spent flower heads and leaves, these creatures are left with no food and nowhere to deposit their eggs for their young that will hatch in spring.

Did you know that the female ladybug, possibly the most beloved garden insect, uses the protected areas deep under piles of fallen leaves to lay her eggs? That as the weather begins to warm the following spring her voracious offspring emerge from their winter lodging to gobble up the aphids that are sucking the life out of succulent new growth throughout the garden?

Creating a natural balance in the garden by letting those fallen leaves remain to provide housing for beneficial insects is one of the basic tenets of a new kind of tending called sustainable gardening. Sustainable gardeners have a chance and indeed a responsibility to restore health to our gardens and to our environment.

Sustainable gardening means that we take as our cues the rhythms of the natural world. It’s clear that our modern conventional gardening and landscaping practices are destructive. The maintenance of lawn-dominated landscapes that rely on massive amounts of chemical assistance is causing problems like urban runoff due to overwatering, the accumulation of huge plumes of pollution in waterways linked to overuse of high nitrogen fertilizer, pollution from mowers, blowers, string trimmers and edgers, destruction of beneficial insect populations from indiscriminate use of powerful insecticides. This is what landscape architect Owen Dell, author of Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies (Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2009) and one of California’s pioneers in the sustainability movement, calls Adversarial Horticulture.

Declaring war on one’s garden accomplishes nothing. Sustainable practices mean that we begin to view our garden as an ecosystem, to be nurtured with all its components in mind: soil, water, plants, as well as all animal life. It’s a web, just like the web of life itself, where intricate and inextricably linked relationships exist. When they’re broken, the garden is on life support, kept alive by copious amounts of water, fertilizer, and big doses of chemicals to fend off the inevitable pests and diseases resulting from imbalance. John Muir’s observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” is never truer than in the garden.

Are you ready to reconsider the fall cleanup? If it breaks your heart to have a “messy” garden, try small steps at first. If you take the plunge, however, you might just be pleasantly surprised to see what kinds of changes begin to take place almost immediately. When you resist the urge to rake or blow the soil bare, the billions of organisms living underground, engaged in a silent but ferocious battle of good versus evil, will thank you, because those decomposing bits of plant material are food. As these critters eat, secrete, excrete, kill their enemies, die themselves and decompose, a quite remarkable thing begins to happen: your soil is naturally enriched and strengthened. All you’ve done is leave well enough alone. The same goes for cutting plants back after bloom. By leaving dead flowers and seed heads through the winter, you’re providing free housing for beneficial insects so tiny you’ll never lay eyes on your guests.

It doesn’t take long to see the benefits of tending the garden with health in mind. When you begin selecting appropriate plants that attract beneficial insects, stop using pesticides, herbicides and high strength synthetic fertilizers, winged visitors will return to feed, pollinate and engage in their own battles. For every 100 insects in your garden, 96 are beneficial. When spraying a broad spectrum insecticide to get rid of a pest, every other insect, including the beneficials, will be wiped out.
The movement in environmentally sound, sustainable garden practices is growing rapidly across the United States and the world. One of the most innovative programs in the US began in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bay-Friendly Landscaping and Gardening, developed by StopWaste.org, is a holistic approach that applies common-sense principles to any gardening style. A Bay-Friendly garden builds healthy soil, reduces waste in the garden, conserves water, creates wildlife habitat, protects local watersheds and the bay, contributes to a healthy community, and saves energy.

Being Bay-Friendly is not only for gardeners. There are now Bay-Friendly Qualified Landscapers and Designers. Check out their informative and inspirational website at www.BayFriendly.org. See if there’s something similar in your area. You already know that gardeners love to talk, and there are plenty who will happily help you get started.

Gardening

Updated: 4:44 PM GMT on October 14, 2011

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About gardencoach

Susan Handjian is a garden educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was a contributing editor of Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates.