As our hemisphere tilts away from the sun during this part of earth’s orbit around it, the shorter days and longer nights bring on the cold. All around us change is dramatic with trees now bare, birds heading south, chipmunks and squirrels gathering food for the long cold winter ahead, all accompanied by frosts and the first snow falls.
In the garden and woodlands, toads work their way down into the soil out of reach of the frost and soil critters will tunnel deeper. All living things know exactly what to do in their natural habitat. Their survival depends on their biological clocks being closely tuned in to the relative length of day and night. If a plant or animal’s internal clock is out of sync with the natural cycles, they would likely not survive the season ahead.
Humans have long made their biological clocks redundant by controlling living conditions through the use of artificial lights and thermostats. Though the ability to completely transform our environment to suit our purposes is an intriguing characteristic that defines our species, it can also make us insensitive to the needs of fellow creatures.
As we consider what to do with our gardens at this time of year, it’s important to take into account the life around us. Weed seeds and leftover vegetables are important food sources for many birds and mammals. Garden toads will be finding refuge in the soil. Any leaf litter is vital insulation offering protection to creatures like salamanders, tree frogs, and most species of invertebrates from life-threatening cold temperatures and predation.
When we go about our typical autumn chores, our actions generally point in the opposite direction. We rake leaves, turn over the soil, chop down spent perennials and mow the lawn one more time. But in doing these chores, are we not working against the natural processes that help ensure winter survival? For farmers, turning over the soil in the fall is a long-standing tradition that may help control some of the pests and allows for an easier start in the spring. However, many farmers are now adopting no till methods to minimize negative impact on soil health.
An untouched forest, meadow, marsh or swamp works perfectly with the only input being sunlight and precipitation. Leaf litter serves like a comforter through the winter months, but never builds up in the thickest of forests. With the arrival of warmer temperatures next spring, creatures will emerge from their winter hibernating spots under the forest litter. The leaves soon blacken and decompose into the humus that supports new growth in the forest. Likewise, dead vegetation doesn’t inhibit next year’s growth in other natural communities. To many of us, a forest littered with broken branches, logs and dead leaves looks untended. However. this kind of natural community represents real sustainability. No indigenous creature is left out. Everyone is accommodated. The only kind of thing that can disrupt the system is an introduced species, human impact, or severe event.
Ideally, we minimize any change to our gardens when we go about gardening in the fall. The gardens may look like a mess but the wildlife is relatively undisturbed as they transition into winter survival mode.
This past week we planted garlic for next year. We had used fabric as a weed barrier over the past growing season. Rather than remove the fabric and disturb the ground underneath, we simply used a fork to loosen the soil where the row of garlic was planted. We removed the old vegetation, added some hen manure and pushed the garlic cloves into the ground. Then, to provide some protection from the frost, we’ll place a loose layer of straw over the newly planted garlic and we’re done for the year. The time taken is minimal as is the disturbance to the soil.
In our tree and shrub nursery, we have placed the potted stock into trenches and will scatter leaf litter over the pots to help moderate the temperature over the next five months. Leaving fallen leaves on shade gardens is simply mimicking what happens in a natural woodland. It helps protect the roots and underground stems of woodland wildflowers, ferns and grasses while providing shelter to many small woodland creatures.
We will leave all the spent vegetation in the garden and replace it next spring with a different species. Rotating crops helps to reduce damage from insects and disease.
Minimal effort on our part means minimal disturbance of the natural environment. “Working hard” is usually self-defeating. This doesn’t mean we won’t have pests and crop failures. It just means we’ll accept them with hopes that natural balances will eventually be established. Minimal effort also translates into minimal cost which makes losses easier to absorb.
Overall success comes with diversity. When I order seeds, I generally order as many species as I think we can handle and more than one variety of each species. For every species or variety that fails, another excels under the conditions of the growing season. We haven’t had a year yet where there has been outright failure. There has always been plenty to harvest overall.
The question to ask along with every work plan: “Is this really necessary? If not, why do it. The more work we do, the greater the impact. If the overall impact is positive, the action makes sense. From my experience, much of the effort we expend brings more aggravation than joy and fulfillment.
Gardening is one of those occupations that has the potential to keep us present and connected. It brings us close to the Earth and reminds us that Nature is the master of survival and productivity. We just need to tune in.