By Mark Barnes
There are those that clean up their garden in fall and there are those that do not. After a long hard summer of watering and weeding followed by a flurry of harvesting I’m one of those that does not clean up his garden. I let the whole dang thing sit and rot through the winter much to the chagrin of my neighbors. Already they look at me strangely for converting my entire front lawn to garden space. They often drive by slowly, as one drives by that strange old man’s house to wonder what the heck he is doing out there.
The garden, after a summer of growth begins to decay with the first frost in fall. My unharvested tomatoes become green balls of gooey goodness for the deer that make their way through the neighborhood late at night. My flower heads slowly crumble with each rain and snowstorm. My hops and grapes hold on to their flowers and fruit for as long as they can, turning brown and withered with each shorter day. Sometimes the grapes offer me a withered snack on the vine as late as December. There’s nothing like a cabernet raisin. In spring, when the snows melt deep within the shadowy corners of the yard, I see the harsh love that winter has brought to my urban oasis.
This past weekend I got out and pruned my fruit trees, saving the best flowering branches for a nice vase inside. I raked the leaves from my beds. I pulled the last of the dried up weeds from last summer and removed the tomato cages in preparation for next week’s rototilling marathon.
Some gardeners argue that by leaving my leaves, refuse, seed heads and a few late weeds around I’m encouraging pests and giving those pesky weeds a chance to spread their seed into the next generation.
I argue that the stuff I leave laying around also provides habitat for spiders that eat the pillbugs and earwigs, mice that snack on the grubs, frogs that eat just about everything. The frogs and mice attract the neighbor cats, which scare off the squirrels and birds that love to go after my fruit trees. If that fails, a glass of iced tea and a relaxing day on the porch with my super squirt gun takes care of the tree rats.
One thing I noticed this year was that the dandelions and mallow, with their deep taproots, emerged quickly underneath the refuse. Insulated with leftover leaves and plants, they were happy little beasts until I dug them all out, root and all.
Only the hardiest of root-based weeds are emerging this time of year anyway. Canada thistle, the bane of my yard’s existence, is a constant effort all year long. At this time of year I can easily spot it, tracking the deep root along where it puts up the rosettes of prickliness. I try to wait until they are big enough to not break the roots off but I conjure Sisyphus as I dig and dig but it keeps growing back.
Sisyphus’s twin brother, bindweed is much the same. I have one area of my yard that it seems to come back in every year. I’ve let that region of the garden starve for a whole year, no water, no attention, just scraped back down to the bare earth, and still, that darn bindweed will come back the next year. I know it will be a lifelong battle. I’ve thought of a concrete barrier but I’m afraid I’d eventually have a border edge of bindweed encircling it.
Although I’m generally an organic gardener, or as they called it in my grandfather’s day, a gardener, I have been known to use a bit of the stronger, modern chemical stuff to kill things, but only on those weeds that give me the most grief. And only then, I’ll use it on areas where I’m not going to be harvesting vegetables for a while. Sometimes you need a tank to kill a mouse.
This year, as I pulled back the layer of leaves, stems and the occasional dried out husk of a zucchini from my garden this spring, I leave a little bit of the slightly composted stuff behind. This, along with the results of my meager compost pile out back, I work back in to the soil giving it the much needed return of organic material last year’s plants pulled out of the earth. I’m also too cheap to spring for store bought compost year after year.
Will I have weeds? Sure. Will I have more bugs? Maybe. I also have a micro landscape to look out my front window on throughout the winter. Besides, my gnomes would be bored in a deserted, barren wasteland.