SOME people call me a lazy gardener because I don't regularly clean and preen my garden in the fall.
A case in point: we recently had a family friend from Calgary come and stay with us for a week. Shortly after his arrival he asked me for a tour of our garden.
My collection of plants is by no means botanically rare, but I grow some cool plants and have a few extraordinary specimens like the giant gunnera in the backyard, which amazed my guest.
After walking around the garden for an hour or so while enjoying some local B.C. wine, our conversation turned to garden cleanliness. My friend asked, "How on earth can you stand the mess in the garden?" I knew exactly what he meant but I pressed him to be more specific.
He resisted - probably out of courtesy - but I pressed him again.
He explained, "You know, all those fallen leaves, dying plants, withering summer flowers and your lawn looks like someone dropped a bunch of weeds and other plants on it - like that little brown-leaved thing (Ajuga species) that's growing everywhere in the lawn."
I explained to him that perennials don't die in the fall; they retract green energy from the leaf. And all of those brilliantly coloured orange, red and yellow leaves add colour to the garden during our grey fall weather.
As for the lawn, I told him my wife and I like some lawn but we realize that an obsessively managed lawn deprives our children of the world's natural resources that they will need in their future and that understanding cured our manic lawn obsession.
Similar conversations probably happen in the fall between families, friends and foes discussing the appearance of their neighbours' gardens.
Am I a lazy gardener? A slacker? Maybe I just don't care? I am not lazy and I do care but my perception and approach to gardening is based on natural rhythms and using low-input, high-return practices that enhance the garden's health over the long term. For example, cutting back perennials too early in the fall deprives those plants of much needed green energy that is withdrawn from the leaves and stored in the roots during winter.
Raking and scraping the garden bed's surface down to bare soil may suit vanity's needs and a desire to order the world around us, but ultimately, removal of all organic matter reduces soil fertility and plant health.
Admittedly, the average homeowner has been conditioned by their parents and the outdated norms of 1950s society to believe that a clean garden is a healthy garden.
Good management practices for the garden in the fall follow several simple principles: Do not use practices or products that cause harm. Add materials that reinforce soil organism and plant relationships. Use low-impact, high-value gardening techniques.
Vitally interwoven among these practices is the understanding of tolerance in relation to the season's rhythms. It is fall, leaves fall and leaf biomass is a valuable food source for the garden's flora and fauna. Plants retract green energy in fall, which they store as food reserves for next year. Cleanliness can be overdone and is not always next to goodness. And one person's perception does not mean that you are lazy if you leave fallen leaves in the garden.
This fall as you clean up the garden, try these simple techniques to improve your garden's health.
Let fallen leaves lie; if you cannot, then replace those leaves with fresh, attractive mulch that will appease your perception and feed the soil and plants.
Allow your perennials to retract green energy until your eyes hurt and your mind rings with the guilt of not cleaning them up. Leave some dead flower heads in the garden to feed birds and insects over winter.
Take care of the lawn as you would a bank account. Don't spend too much of our resource capital, leave some for our children. Do not fertilize healthy lawns as they try to go to sleep this fall. If the lawn is healthy, why does it need to be fertilized?
Don't wait to plant until spring when fall provides some of the warmest soil temperatures conducive to plant growth. If you have planting or transplanting to do, then do it now and bed down your new plants with a good layer of life enhancing mulch.
At the end of my gardening conversation with my family friend he admitted that his garden is not always the cleanest. I asked: How does that make you feel? He said, "A little guilty. But I thought you were a professional and knew better."
It seems I get asked that question a lot.