Gardening for Life: Finishing up the season
By JOSE GERMAN
For Montclair Local
Jose German is an environmental activist, Essex County certified master gardener and Montclair resident. He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition.
Fall is the beginning of a new cycle of life. It is a kind of respite for nature before we move into winter. It is not the end of the gardening season, but the beginning of a transformation that will guide us through the winter and into the spring.
Plants and trees are preparing to go dormant; birds and monarch butterflies are migrating south while butterfly caterpillars that remain in the region are going into the process of cocooning. Local wildlife will stick around, but in winter mode. A challenging garden predator, the groundhog, will hibernate soon, overwintering on the fat our vegetable gardens so generously supplied.
As other species prepare for the winter season, gardeners look at their yards and worry about what needs to be done. Before deciding to do a fall cleanup or to winterize your garden, you should consider the ecological impact.
FALL CLEANUP? LEAVE THE LEAVES!
Albert Camus said, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
Nothing is better for your garden this time of year than preserving the leaves in your yard. If you are concerned that your front yard may not look neat, you can collect the leaves from the front and save them in an inconspicuous spot for use as spring mulch in your flower beds or raw material for next season’s compost.
In the less visible backyard, leave the fallen leaves and postpone your cleanup to the spring. Excessive leaves can simply be raked to the bases of bushes, where they will provide winter insulation and, eventually, organic material for the soil. Think of these leaves as mulch; you can water them with your hose if necessary so they won’t blow away.
Leaves are a great source of carbon to balance the nitrogen in your compost pile. They improve the quality of your soil by feeding earthworms and beneficial microbes and help sandy soil retain moisture. Using fallen leaves as mulch also saves you money on weed management. The leaves have the same weed suppression and moisture retention properties as shredded wood mulch — and they are free! Let nature be nature and do its part.
THE ECO-FRIENDLY APPROACH
Make any fall cleanup minimal. While saving some leaves for compost, leave as much of your yard as possible in a “natural fall state,” as habitat for pollinators and beneficial wildlife. Leaving dry plant stalks in the flower beds adds winter interest and provides seeds for birds to feed on in the cold season.
Certain seed-bearing flowers like echinacea or black-eyed Susans are especially favored by birds. Some butterfly species cocoon on dry stems or in fallen leaves over the winter; others overwinter as caterpillars in the fallen leaves or lay their eggs on dry leaves. Removing the plants and leaves means killing these overwintering insects.
If you find tall stalks unsightly, you can cut them back to about 2 feet high. This will still allow many pollinators to build nests inside over the winter or in early spring. Don’t throw away the seed heads, though. Tie them in bunches and hang them from your bird feeder or from a low branch of any tree or bush in your yard. Hungry birds will be grateful.
IMPROVE YOUR TURF
Fall is also a good season to seed your lawn and improve the quality of your turf. A thicker lawn inhibits weeds. Don’t prune trees or shrubs yet; the best time for this is late winter, while they are dormant.
If you have contracted landscaping services, it is time for contract renewal. Be sure they are licensed by the state of New Jersey, have a permit to work in Montclair and, most importantly, have liability and workers compensation insurance. The state requires this insurance for all landscaping companies.
Fall can be a time of reflection about what worked and what did not work in the garden, especially this year, when most of us have used our yards more than ever before due to the quarantine.
It is also the perfect time for redefining your garden or even starting a new garden project for next year. Starting a new garden in the fall is cheaper than during the gardening high season, since plants are often on sale. Fall has the advantage of being the best time to plant deciduous trees.
Make a list of the things that you like and the things that you would like to change. View you and your family as an essential component of any transformation in the current structure of your yard and base your design on what your family likes and needs. Keep in mind the concept of the right plant for the right place.
Work with, not against, nature.