Saturday, October 18, 2008

Don't Clean Up Your Garden!

As winter starts to chill the garden, we are tempted to get outside, tear out the dead and dying plants, clear away debris, have everything be neat and tidy. It may look better that way, but in nature, that is not the way things are handled. Nature knows best how to handle its cycles and she can teach us if we will watch and listen.

The pods left behind from our winter flowers and vegetables provide food and shelter for birds and insects over the long winter months. The debris of a dead plant may shelter the tender shoots when that plant reseeds itself in spring.

We are unseasonably warm here in the Northwest and many plants are still blooming, though some foliage may have been burned away by early frost. This picture shows a few dead leaves and some flowers and seedpods. We have had one heavy frost in my region and it withered several leaves. I may cut the leaves for the compost pile or simply let them alone to decompose where they are. I will definitely leave the seedpods to ripen and burst. Not only will they provide food for birds, there will always be enough seeds that escape into the soil to grow again next year. All the nasturtiums in my garden are volunteers. The tender young flowers can be eaten in salads and the bees love them too.

This picture shows a tangle of Blue Flax. The flowers are gone now, but the plants are laden with seedpods. Those are the round, brown objects scattered all over the plant. Blue Flax easily reseeds itself, but is not a problem to control. I love the flowers, they are small and bright blue and cover the plants from spring until late fall. Each flower only lasts one day, but there are so many, it seems in perpetual bloom. To tear out this plant simply because it has finished its seasonal bloom would, in my opinion, be foolish. Again, more seeds for the birds and insects, plus I will never have to purchase another Blue Flax, and the plant will provide years of joy in the garden.

Here is a part of the garden that is completely given over to wildflowers, herbs, and even a few weeds. You can see that some of them have gone completely to seed. During the spring and all through summer, this part of the garden is especially ahum with bees. That is the primary reason I planted it. I even allow some dandelions and other *weeds* to grow and I control them by pulling them out when they go where I don't want them. Dandelions are early bloomers and early bee flowers. If you are lucky enough to have skunk cabbage on your land, this is one of the earliest bloomers of all and therefore, a very early bee feeder. Allysum is an absolute necessity in any garden. It blooms early, attracting bumblebees and other beneficial insects, stays blooming pretty much all year especially if you trim it midway through the season, and has a wonderful light scent. Here's a picture of some Allysum that is still blooming although most of it has gone to seed.

I will leave all these plants, and more, to provide sustenance and shelter through the winter to the birds and beneficial insects that I want to have around come spring. Just like any other living thing, they go where the food is.

A true organic garden takes a lot of work and maybe a few years to really get going, particularly if damage has already been done to the ecosystem by the use of pesticides and/or herbicides. Pesticides and herbicides always kill more than advertised and always stay in the soil longer than their manufacturers would like you to believe. The use of pesticides in the garden to control *bad insects* has very much the same result as the overuse of antibiotics. What we have now are super bugs, not only in medicine, but also in our gardens, that are almost impossible to control. The pesticides wipe out beneficial insects AND BIRDS, allowing the unwanted insects to proliferate and grow stronger, developing immune systems that require more and larger applications of pesticides. We are seeing the results of pesticide use all over the world- the oceans and all streams on earth are polluted. Every man, woman, and child has poisons in their blood. This has to stop now - we face a devastating future if it does not. Start now to share your garden with other life, even if it looks like this:

This is a Rove Beetle. They are very tiny and can best be distinguished by a habit of holding up their tails like scorpions. They do not sting - however, they do eat an unbelievable amount of aphids, mites, nematodes, fly eggs, and maggots (which might explain why they like to hang around dead animals and decaying plant matter) and the occasional slug or snail. A person's first impulse might be to step on him. He's an ally, better to encourage him, not kill him.

I do very little cleanup in my garden in the fall, preferring to leave most plants to go to seed in order to provide food for birds and beneficial insects and also shelter from larger predators. I do remove plants like squash and tomatoes for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they will generally leave the soil in better shape if they are removed when the plant dies with the frost. Over the winter, I will do virtually no weeding or culling. In the spring, when the first little sprouts stick their heads above soil, I still hold back a bit - maybe just remove some of the older, larger remnants of dead plants. I do not want to disturb the ground too much - who knows what is waiting there to push itself above the soil?