Over the past few months, I’ve offered you several posts about simple and effective sustainable gardening techniques. Here are a few more ideas for you to consider as the great fall cleanup time arrives.
Pinpoint Problems First
Before starting your whole laundry list of fall chores, step back and consider two great questions: Where do you spend the most chore time in the garden? Which parts of the garden are the most enjoyable for you? Rarely are these places the same. Identifying our garden’s most high maintenance areas can help us to make smart choices about which garden features to eliminate or alter.
For instance, if we constantly need to weed a cracked stretch of paving, we may decide to burn away the weeds with our flame weeder, then seal the cracks with cement. If we are constantly whacking away at a fast-growing, too-wide hedge, we may choose to replace it with a fence that will never outgrow its position.
Lessons From Nature
Before you whack your garden to the ground, take time to think about which plants might rot happily in place. Often you can reduce your workload considerably by sheet composting in the garden instead of making big heaps elsewhere.
After studying natural models, from woodlands to meadows, I’ve adapted the idea of forest duff–leaf fall rotting in place–into making “self mulching” gardens. A self-mulching garden bed is filled with plants that die with dignity and can be allowed to compost in layers or sheets on site.
Learn To Chop & Drop
I always start off with a nice thick layer of mulch, usually compost or aged dairy manure, to give new plants the best possible beginning. In subsequent seasons, I use my favorite “chop-and-drop” method of grooming to speed things up. Chop-and-drop grooming involves cutting any big foliage and thick stalks into smaller pieces and letting them rot where they fall. This idea is troublesome to the tidy-minded, but think about it for a minute. Recycling in place works in the woods, so why not in our gardens?
Leave The Leaves
When we think about fading foliage as food packets that still have plenty of nutrients to deliver, we are less apt to consider old leaves as trash to be removed. Leave the leaves to rot and the garden soil will be improved.
If big, coarse leaves are involved, mow them a few times to chop them up a bit, then let them rot where they lie (even on the sacred lawn). Naturally, diseased foliage and weeds in seed are not included in the chop-and-drop program, but most healthy plant parts can easily be shredded in situ.
As a final touch, you can add a layer of mature compost over the chopped stuff to give the garden beds a more finished look. The composting process will progress faster, the garden will look tidy, and your plants will love your kindly treatment.
Easy Care Perennial Beds
If a perennial bed needs more attention than we have time for, we may blend in easy-going evergreen herbs (like lavender and rosemary) and shrubs (like hebes and ceanothus) as well as ornamental grasses. To keep maintenance to a minimum, be sure to choose evergreen, clumping grasses instead of running grasses.
Swapping out needy and short-blooming perennials for long term performers will improve the garden’s looks in all seasons while reducing the time you spend on it. Now, there’s a deal that’s hard to refuse.
Reducing Turf Saves Time and Resources
We may also decide to replace unused parts of a thirsty lawn with beds of drought tolerant native shrubs. In shadier areas where grass does not thrive, consider swapping out turf for paving stone paths and sheets of groundcovers that don’t need coddling. Each time we make such choices, we free up a bit more time and energy for enjoying the garden instead of slaving in it. Doesn’t that sound tempting?
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Thanks for the reminder to look at leaves, weeds, and spent plants as free, available, nutrient-rich compost rather than another mess to clean up! Do you recommend using leaves (and what kinds) or sheet mulching for vegetable beds, or does your post refer mainly to perennial beds? I’ve used some maple leaves to mulch veggie beds in the past, but I’m surrounded mainly by oaks and have been reluctant to use their leaves because I’m not sure how the tannins or acidity will affect the soil. I’ve also heard that vegetable plants should be cleaned out of the garden and not left to rot in place to avoid letting diseases get established in the soil. But I’d love to be able to just chop up dead plants right into beds at the end of the season….
Yes, it is always a good idea to sort out unhealthy plants for hot composting, but many otherwise wasted plant materials can be sheet mulched. I always remove the seedheads of all weeds, as well as over-eager self-sowing perennials, and I don’t sheet mulch the roots of persistent weeds either. In summer, you can simply pull up weeds and leave them, roots and all, on the soil to get fried by the sun. In winter, the same weeds may well re-root themselves, so I am more cautious. As for healthy vegetable leftovers (leaves and stems), you can shred them and mix them with shredded leaves for faster breakdown (a lawnmower works well).
Plants prone to disease, like the whole hollyhock clan, can indeed carry diseases forward season to season. If you are a confident and skilled composter, plants infected with rust, for instance, can be shredded and hot composted. I usually burn diseased plants, or add them to the green waste recycling cart (commercial composting gets truly hot enough to kill most pathogens).
As for leaves, it is true that some leaves can be harmful, especially huge ones like bigleaf maple, which can smother small plants and damage evergreen foliage if allowed to pile up. Some people feel that walnut leaves can kill plants, others think only living walnut roots cause damage. Your oak leaves are beneficial in mulch but they do take their time breaking down. They are just fine in a smother mulch or a sheet mulch that will be left in place over the winter. Hope that helps!