As autumn ends abruptly in Alaska, gardeners are still busy in their yards winterizing, preparing for the snow and hoping to create a tidy landscape before spring. I would like to make the case for keeping a little bit of messiness in your garden this fall (and hopefully every fall moving forward). Leaving fallen leaves, dried grasses and twigs and other natural debris can benefit a gardener in the short and long term in a variety of ways.
Soil and plant health:
Leaf litter, smaller twigs, lawn trimmings and other remnants of our summer gardens can be used as free mulch! Returning this valuable resource to the soil (or even just letting it drop where it may) can help protect soil during the harsh winter, return nutrients to the soil and greatly reduce a gardener’s fall chores. If one is concerned about the visual messiness, leaves can be shredded (and ideally should be to prevent any thick mats from forming) and moved to flower beds. It really is a neat cost savings trick as well, reducing the need to purchase additional mulch to prepare for the winter. In fact, a slightly different spin on this technique is used by gardeners all year long and often called “Chop and Drop” or green mulching. For more information, please check out Chop and Drop Mulch.
If you elect to mulch, one note of caution: mulching can slow the warming of soil in the spring so it may be worth it to remove some of the mulch after breakup. Composting is another great alternative. Using this debris as a source of green or brown materials (or both) and creating your own compost is a fantastic use of garden waste and a value add action for the entire garden. Composting can also kill weed seeds if done right- helping to reduce work in your summer garden.
In essence, as plants grow they soak in nutrients. When these plants wither or shed leaves for the fall and we remove the debris, we remove the nutrients that could be returned to the soil. Taking less action will actually benefit the long-term health of our soil and our garden. In this vein, pruning can also be left until spring. Branches can also be reused to build ornamental fences (check out the Alaska Botanical Garden for some wonderful ideas) or trellises for next year’s plants.
Native bees, butterflies, moths and many other beneficial insects harbor in leaves and garden debris to stay warm over winter. These insects are not only essential pollinators in the spring and summer, they also provide food for a variety of birds in the area. Increasing the biodiversity of our gardens is not only beneficial to the overall health and wellbeing of our gardens, it is a delightful way to promote local wildlife visiting and providing endless opportunities to enjoy the wild critters that call Alaska home. Again consider what is suitable for your garden- organic mulches can also harbor pesky creatures like voles if you do not have the necessary predators to keep this critters in check.
I’ll be the first to admit that my enjoyment of messiness in my garden has its limits. I love letting the fireweed get a little wild on the perimeters of my garden but I find it to be an eye sore when it dries up and awkwardly juts out of the meadow behind my house- the last plant standing from the summer. I live with a fellow gardener who is addicted to wood chips and I recognize the value of bringing in an additional organic mulch resource to aid in wintering my more delicate perennials and newly planted trees. Messiness, like all things, is subject to the art of compromise.
I trim my overgrown wildflowers and grasses in the fall like most other gardeners. However, instead of bagging the trimmings and disposing of them- I will either let them fall where I trim them or I move the debris to places in my garden where the soil needs extra care (dried, compacted, eroded spaces that need more organic build up). Even if this gets covered in wood chips (and it usually does), my garden is still feeding itself. Additionally, I like knowing that there are many places for my local insects to stay warm for the winter.
Messiness aside, tools are a gardener’s best friend! I am (and I bet you are as well) pretty fanatical about cleaning my gardening tools and storing them properly for winter. In Alaska, this can range from hoses to pitchforks to sickles to a lawn mower. Cleaning tools, oiling them if necessary and storing them away from the frost will always pay off. My garden may be getting messier each fall but my tool storage area remains pristine and organized. It is also heated so I can fuss around in there during the long winter.
When all is said and done, a gardener needs to enjoy his/her space. We all seek peace in our garden sanctuaries. If leaving your garden overgrown and drying out all winter ruins the serenity, I’d advocate that you too find a compromise. We can all save a little time and a little effort and benefit ourselves and our gardens.
If you’d like to have some fun with this you can check out Pledge to be a lazy gardener.
Finally, please refer to UAF’s Cooperative Extension Service Alaska Winter Gardener Checklist.