Lazier gardening is in style at last!

A small farm store at the back of photo, with bottom of bright red roof overhanging a small terrace with display of bottled and packaged goods; foreground shows a gray graveled area with displays pots of flowering chrysantemums and tipped-sideways baskets of winter squashes on cloth-covered tiers of tables; near foreground shows a couple dozen medium and large pumpkins on ground at the middle and along either far side of photo

Fall’s abounding at the farm store!

Fall is arriving so early this year. Too early for me, no matter which standpoint I’m looking from: how much time and effort I’ve put into getting things to grow, only to see them keel over; or the timetable of advice on fall cleanup. Every time I go out to the garden, I find evidence of demise (sometimes obscured by fallen leaves, but I peek underneath), along with garden denizens’ busy preparations for winter’s long wail.

Area of light brown mulch, with scattered small yellow leaves on it, and a metal plant marker just behind a little hole in the ground

There was a dahlia here just yesterday.

The little dahlia annual, which never did much anyway after I popped it into its allotted space in late July, possibly excepting a couple of anemic and barely perceptible blooms, has now disappeared more than entirely: there is but a dent in the ground where it once lived. Somebody must have found it very tasty, down to the tips of its tiny toe roots. The dogwoods, so late to leaf out in the spring (seriously: June??) are already shedding leaves faster than a Labrador retriever in hot weather sheds fur. And to much the same effect; it’s blowing all over the place. The local squirrels have been having quite literally field day after field day with the black walnuts dropped by my neighbors’ trees. They’ve squirreled the evidence of their nutcracking skills all over the garden beds. Which, by the way, makes me wonder why Tchaikovsky didn’t put one of them in the starring role in that ballet. Black walnuts being notoriously resistant to extraction of their meat, these are squirreal pros, I tell you.

Gray squirrel in profile, perched on post of white deck railing; green lawn and some bushes in far background

The nutcracker

Graying mulch on the ground, with two pieces of black walnut husk atop it

The nut

In short, after all that painstaking summer work, the place is a mess. Not a weedy green mess, no. A death scene from Camille mess. I hear nature’s parting moan.

Time for a cleanup?

Which gets me thinking about garden cleanup. My neighbors’ yards all seem to look so spiffy by the time winter rolls in: leaves cleared, dead foliage removed, anything outside the coldframes that isn’t an evergreen trimmed to regulation height and breadth. As for me—well, this year is the first time I cut the peonies back before March, and that is only because they were covered in so much gruesome powdery mildew that I followed the advice of some online expert to get the foliage and stalks off the property, lest the affliction reappear early next year.

long strip of garden plot with some tall wooden stakes, a few inches of old stalks left after cutting back 3 mature peony plants; some chives in foreground. blue tarp and orange bucket on the ground at the right and the top of a gray stone wall running along the left side

I already got the peonies cut back…

But as for the rest?

I’m finding that there are two schools of thought on this. I used to think there was only the one, the garden equivalent of dostadning, that suddenly buzz-wordy death cleaning. Throw out everything nonessential so the heirs won’t have to. Fallen leaves, out! Dead stalks, begone!

All that detritus, say the advisors, can provide winter harbor for nasty diseases and pests and practically begs them to reappear in spring legions: hungry caterpillars busting out of pupas, weevil larvae awakening to chew on every tender root, fungal spores soaring on the spring breezes in search of victims. Why leave trouble such comfy winter bunk space? Clean it all out, lay on nice clean mulch to tuck everything in for the winter, and then go inside and mull your cider.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the indoor dostadning. Shouldn’t the heirs have to expend some effort for their inheritance? I’m reminded of the cleanup my mother, her sister, and their cousin had to do after my two great-aunts and my great-uncle keeled over in quick succession. I won’t say the greaties were exactly hoarders, but huge collections of ancient newspapers and magazines cluttered the entire homestead. While cleaning them out, the potential heirs found at least two invalid wills and $50,000 in cash stashed hidden amidst the paper. Believe me, once probate was figured out, the heirs sure appreciated that inheritance. If the greaties had cleaned up on their own, the cash might have been lost, or spent in some mad geriatric spree before anyone could inherit.

Leave it!

Which brings me to the second school of thought, one I discovered only recently but find much more to my taste. (Some might say it is not taste but a tendency to inertia, but let’s ignore them. They probably wax their legs. Regularly.)

Leave it lie! says the new school. Let nature be nature.

A patch of garden in October, with dead leaves, straw mulch and debris from dead flowers and arugula, chickenwire fence towards back and cement stepping stones in foreground

Leave it? Really? Not clean this up? Seriously?

If you clean out all the dead stuff from your garden, you’ll be removing many of the beneficial bugs, along with habitat both for them and for the birds that feed on plant predators. Did you know that there are many species of ground-dwelling bees, and others that nest in dead wood? So if you clear the grounds entirely, you are removing the bees and their eggs, and will have fewer pollinators next year. Getting rid of all your dead brush means less shelter from winter blasts, for the birds you’ll want to be seeing and hearing next spring. Haul away all the dead flowers along with their seedheads, and you’re eliminating free birdseed. Remove all the foliage that could be left atop the ground, and you’re losing winter insulation for your daintier perennials and eventual fertilizer for all your plants.

I’ll tell you more about all this in a later post, and possibly a book review. For now, trust me: there are pros making this case. I do hesitate a little; the grounds are not photogenic.

But then, when was nature meant to pose?

Gardens teeter at the intersection of humankind and nature. Humans seem to aspire to total control: orderly, regimented planting and harvest schedules, routing all potential pests and then importing any critters—ladybugs, praying mantis, parasitic wasps, butterflies—that we find useful or ornamental. The word hubris comes to mind: an insistence on control in pursuit of a total perfection whose secrets we think we know, rather than striving for balance, a seesawing of opposites, the ebb and flow, flow and ebb of problems and solutions.

Bare dead branch lying on brick walkway next to cement steps and the edge of a shrub with dark red, small leaves

Thing that went bump in the day, off its base camp on the roof.

So this year, I’m thinking, I’ll let the heirs duke it out in the spring. Brushpile in the corner of the yard (more candidates came down in our high winds this past week), leaves nesting where they will atop the mulch. And I go in to the mulled cider.

This does not, however, mean that Tamerlane the woodchuck’s future is secure. The jury is still out on that one, and if I find him munching on the new hakonechloa or the heuchera, I’m going full nasty human. It would be unnatural to do otherwise.

Now, have your say in a comment below:

  1. Do you lean more to the death-cleaning or the leave-it approach? Why? Have you changed your approach on preparations for winter, and if so, what prompted you to make the change?
  2. When was your first frost this year (if you’ve had one already), and when is your usual first frost? (If you never get frosts, please don’t rub it in; just choose a different question. Thank you. <small grin>)
  3. Care to share your recipe for mulled cider? Or other favorite fall recipe?

Remember: first time you post a comment, it won’t appear on the site until I approve it, but I try to get to those pretty quickly. Once you have one approved comment, any subsequent comment (if you use the same name and email address) should go public immediately. Let me know if that doesn’t happen for you. And notice that subscribing for notifications of new posts is easy-peasy: if you’re making a comment, there’s a little box you can tick after the comment to get onto the mailing list. Have a lovely week.

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10 Responses to Lazier gardening is in style at last!

  1. Ellice Gonzalez says:

    So glad to know that what I thought was lazy behavior (I’d rather be inside reading a book than outside on a raw November morning) by leaving all the detritus from last season’s blooms is actually taking a pro-active stand for the environment!

  2. lorna says:

    Peonies are my favorite flowers. I lovingly cut them back and told them to rest until spring. I am still picking green tomatoes which slowly turn red in the front room of my house where it is cooler, and also cutting chard, onions, carrots and celery. I have plenty of herbs but the basil is done. I wish I grew fresh fish and red wine.

    • Kateri says:

      Wow, Lorna, you are so lucky still to have those green tomatoes! I’m seeing some gardening advice that says you can keep the carrots going all winter (well, maybe sleeping tucked under straw for the really cold months) and that come spring, they will be even sweeter. Have you tried that? I didn’t get to carrots this year, but I’m itching to try next year.

  3. Lynn says:

    I’ve moved firmly into the “leave it all winter” category although I’m thinking about cutting back some of the more mildewed looking phlox. I like the idea of providing seed heads for the birds and shelter for beneficial critters–and I have more energy for clean up in the spring when I’m eager to get into the garden. And yes, things look messy now but all those stalks and seed heads provide some visual interest when things get snow/sleet covered. Indoors, the idea of “death cleaning” has an abstract appeal but I quickly give up on real clean-out efforts.

    • Kateri says:

      Lynn, I think we’re allowed to clear out the mildewed stuff, but I’m sorry to hear that happens to phlox–since I just recently planted a bunch of it.
      Won’t say I can’t wait for snow to cover up the grounds, but it sure does have visual merits. (And, so I hear, provides important insulation for the perennials’ roots.)

  4. Oh how excellent! And yes indeed – we learned a great deal. But we mostly just enjoy your juxtapositions and humor. We won’t say anything about the frost question. I’m gonna recommend this to a couple of folks if that’s okay?

  5. Emily Lackey says:

    I’m a death cleaner in the house, a leave it all cleaner outside of it. Why? Because it reminds me of home. We didn’t have a polished yard—with a single mother who worked full time there wasn’t the time—so a little mess always feels lived in to me.

    • Kateri says:

      I always wondered what it felt like to live with a perfect yard. That is, once I was conscious of what “perfect yard” even meant. When I was growing up, a regularly mown lawn seemed to be all that was required. I don’t think I even heard the word mulch till I was in my forties.

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