When I was growing up, cleaning out the garden in winter was an annual ritual. My parents had a fairly small urban-ish plot and yet we still managed to load up about eight big bags worth of leaves and three to four trash cans full of twigs.
Mike’s yard is a bit of a different story. His house is situated on a narrow acre in the suburbs. While the neighbors across the street have yard sizes that are more similar to that of my parents (though depressingly empty), everyone on our side of the street has at least an acre. We also have a creek and a tiny patch of Missouri scrub. All of this means more work and more wildlife.
This is our fourth year working this property. Every year we add a little bit more, move a little be more around, and try to find newer ways to fight with the landscape a little less. After all, there’s plenty to do inside and plenty of other hobbies (not to mention work) calling without constantly trying to keep the yard pristine. So this year we gave up cleaning out the beds in Autumn.
Why We Stopped Obsessing Over Bed Cleanliness:
- The most basic answer to this is “life is too short.” In Fall, I’d rather be making a stew, reading, and generally hibernating than throwing my back out in the yard.
- We have two enormous pines and a sweet gum out front. The pines drop enough needles to make an 8×4′ pile every year. The sweet gum drops about double that size in leaves and then another 8×4′ pile of balls in late winter. We used to drag these to the back but they’re actually really beneficial where they are.
- pine needles leach acid into the soil which our many hydrangeas and azaleas love and need
- they leave a dense mat that insulates efficiently, they typically don’t wash away, and they don’t seem to promote slugs
- the sweet gum balls are a slug deterrent while the leaves are home to moth and other insect cocoons which keeps the food chain humming
- the leaves provide protection for emerging perennials like hosta, astilbe, and goatsbeard and impart important nutrients to the soil
- We want to increase and protect Missouri wildlife. Our location is unique in that we’re fairly suburban with heavy traffic but given the 8-10 open-ish acres around us, we support a diverse ecosystem. Our yard is home to hawks, owls, rabbits, woodchucks, cats, little flocks of birds, the odd red fox, field mice, toads, and voles. Because we have a large enough plot and because I think it’s kind of foolish to fight with nature on all fronts, we encourage this wildlife by leaving the yard alone and choosing beneficial specimens.
- We kept our volunteer cypress trees for their berries and because our blue jays, cardinals, and gold finches love them. I really love having the two by the bedroom window as the goldfinches have their morning ritual of lining up on the window sill and peck us good mornings on the glass.
- leafy piles and larger stones invite toads. Toads in turn keep our mosquito levels down.
- Allium, iris, daylily, and grass straps provide nesting materials for birds, squirrels, woodchucks, chipmunks, mice and voles. Hawks keep our mice and voles in check so we don’t get them in the house.
- broken pine branches are taken out back for our array of woodpeckers
- Liriope is left to over-winter and fruit for birds.
- A few good spiky barberries are strewn about for protection of small birds from hawks and other predators
- We also planted fruiting bushes and trees to provide winter meals
- Hosta stalks are left up until mid spring for those who lay eggs in straw-like structures
- Leaves and needles are left for nesting materials
In April, when everyone is pretty much set up for spring, we’ll rake out the remaining leaves, needles and gum balls and transfer them to the back where they’ll compost or be used to mulch the very much work-in-progress vegetable and rose beds. Then we’ll go about rearranging what needs to be rearranged, trimming what should be trimmed, and generally gussying the whole front up. But winter is a time for rest and if resting also means being a good steward to our wild neighbors, I’m all for it.