The Self-Taught Gardener: A rake’s progress

Leaves are in essence nature’s mulch, covering the forest floor, holding in moisture and suppressing weeds. So why are we bagging up all of these leaves to be carted away each fall?

Many ecologically minded gardeners have a new approach to managing their soil that is changing the way we all work within our landscapes and with what we have been given. For years, the gold standard of soil care was to amend, amend and amend some more. Bringing in dehydrated manure and compost from outside sources, and adding bone and blood meal were commonplace. Mulches were purchased that would slowly break down and feed the soil. The idea was to create “good” garden soil that worked well for common border perennials and shrubs, somewhat of a one-soil-fits-all approach.

But a new generation of gardeners has a different take that almost seems to come from self-help books or Oprah Winfrey: accept the soil you have. With concerns over what pests and diseases (let alone seeds of invasive plants) one is introducing into the garden through amendment and the importation of mulch from outside sources, gardeners are instead beginning to work with what they have been given. And this season’s primary task is a reminder of something we have been given for which we should be thankful: the leaves that we rake up. Leaves are in essence nature’s mulch, covering the forest floor, holding in moisture and suppressing weeds.

Claudia West, who is part of a lecture series at Berkshire Botanical Garden next Sunday called "Rooted in Place,' suggests matrix plantings, such as the composition seen here, that work with the soil one has. Proper plant selection will minimize weed development.
Claudia West, who is part of a lecture series at Berkshire Botanical Garden next Sunday called “Rooted in Place,’ suggests matrix plantings, such as the composition seen here, that work with the soil one has. Proper plant selection will minimize weed development.

So why are we bagging up all of these leaves to be carted away each fall, and then carting in truckloads and plastic sacks of mulch each spring, when many of us could be producing for ourselves all the compost and mulch we need? Perhaps it is because we are still holding on to the orthodoxy of creating a what has always been defined as “good garden soil,” evenly moist, free draining, perfectly balanced, slightly acidic and suitable to the most common border perennials. Wouldn’t it be simpler to grow things that respond well to the soil we have, and to use what it produces to maintain the soil? I live in a sandy valley and am beginning to select plants that prefer this free-draining soil, which may be a little light on nutrients for some typical garden plants, but which also is not an encouraging environment for common weeds. And many of the plant combinations I am selecting require minimal, if any, mulching. If the right combination is chosen, the plants should form a matrix of roots within the soil that minimizes the territory in which weeds can develop. Plants with different root structures hold the soil and may outcompete weeds. (I hope to hear more about this at Claudia West’s lecture next weekend during the Rooted in Place symposium at the Berkshire Botanical Garden.)

At the Hermannshof, Cassian Schmidt grows plants well adapted to the soil and climate, minimizing labor in the garden.
At the Hermannshof, Cassian Schmidt grows plants well adapted to the soil and climate, minimizing labor in the garden.

Additionally, at a recent lecture in Philadelphia, Cassian Schmidt, the director of the Hermannshof in Germany, told his audience that environments lacking one major plant need – water or nutrition or a full-day’s sun — require much less care than sunny borders with “good garden soil.” The possibility that, if I have made the right plant choices, I could work less on improving my soil and maintaining my garden is an easy sell for me. Of course, I will still spend energy improving the soil of my vegetable garden. There, using leaf mold and compost from my own yard, I can provide hungry plants with the nutrition they need so that they can, in turn, provide me with the nutrition I need. This seems like energy well spent. Yet, even in this territory, I will work with what I have been given. I will create my own compost and a mulch of shredded leaves. (It is best to shred leaves before using them as a mulch so that water can reach the soil and so that the soil can respire.) These amendments, with a minimal to nonexistent carbon footprint and no cost, seem like the ideal choice. And if I really want to fortify my vegetable garden even further, perhaps it is time to get some chickens and to enrich my compost with their bedding (although it is best to have a hot compost approach if using chicken manure in your compost pile).

A dry gravel garden requires less maintenance because the lack of water helps to keep weeds down. Plants are selected for their adaptation to such conditions.
A dry gravel garden requires less maintenance because the lack of water helps to keep weeds down. Plants are selected for their adaptation to such conditions.

With this in mind, I am ready to head back into the yard to rake leaves so I can save money and time next year. Raking no longer seems like a chore. Instead, it seems more like a retirement savings program.

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A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.