The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 22, 2006

Features

The Country Gardener Fall garden chores

My mother kept an immaculate garden. She tended a tasteful suburban quarter acre in Newton with two or three large trees to cast comfortable shade on the house that permitted azaleas, rhododendrons and hostas to flourish, yet enough sun in certain areas to grow daffodils, daylilies, iris and roses. She would rake leaves all fall, bagging up 20 or 30 for the trash collectors to take away.

My Carlisle garden is not immaculate. I rake a lot of leaves in the fall, but not all of them. I sometimes have this guilty notion that I am like the lazy housekeeper who sweeps the dust under the rug. My mother spent a lot of time getting all the leaves out from under her bushes, while I spend my time stuffing them underneath. My philosophy is that small leaves make good mulch, so under the bush they go. Large smothering leaves, like oak leaves for instance, are hauled into the chicken pen.

I don't want leaves on my lawn or stone paths. Smothering leaves on a lawn shade the grass too much, and leaves on stone paths decompose into weed fodder. I probably could stuff 100 bags with leaves if I felt like it. Who has time? Why would I want to bag up and dispose of so valuable a commodity as leaves? It is organic matter that should be fed back into the ecosystem. If I didn't have chickens, I would pile my leaves into the woods or in tidy heaps away from the house to decompose over time into leaf mold, which is a wonderful soil amendment. Raking leaves is good for you. Stuffing leaves into bags is not. It is wasteful, and it hurts your back.

The good, the bad, the ugly

Looking around my landscape I notice that some plants have entered the fall season looking just fine. The ornamental grass is at its best. The Rose of Sharon continues to burst forth colorful blooms. Most of my shrubs are looking decent, but some of the plants look nasty! Why is it that without any killing frosts the annual Black-eyed Susans have turned black? I'm not talking about the perennial Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia "Goldsturm" that looks wonderful. I'm talking about the casual but flashy ones that looked drop-dead gorgeous in the searing heat of July. They look droopy and black, almost as ugly as the Malva sylvestris that for most of June and July caused my heart to swoon, but now makes me gag. What once was a large, bushy three-foot tall and wide delight covered in delicate white or pink blooms is now over four or five feet tall, composed of brown sticks with one or two pathetic flowers drooping from the top.

Off with its head

The solution? Off with its head. That's my motto for garden clean-up. If it's ugly, cut it off. I filled three cart loads of plant clippings and weeds from my gardens this past weekend. One load went into the compost pile, and the weed-infested loads went into a wild corner in the back of our property.

With the killing frost only a few weeks away, these keep-it-or-cut-if-off decisions will face me, the casual gardener, as well as the immaculate, fastidious gardener. I tend to err on the keep-it side. Life is too short to pull every weed or trim every errant shoot. But what about the issue of nasty viruses and bugs lurking in the debris? Without being overly obsessive about it, I try to keep obviously diseased leaves out of my compost pile. The odd weather this past season left my usually attractive peonies looking really horrible, with discolored and twisted foliage. I have not gotten around to cutting off the stems and throwing them away, but it is on my To Do list. These leaves will not be for the compost pile because they probably have a fungal disease. I'll put them in my brush pile for burning next April.

The killing frost tends to come in early October in my gardens. I'm in a low zone that seems to attract cold morning frosts. I'll cover some tender plants and postpone the inevitable for maybe a week, but the basil is highly susceptible to cold weather. I'm going to cook or pesto my basil before it turns black and slimy from frost.

I scratched my arms doing it, but I am proud to say that I grubbed out that gargantuan octopus of a bramble patch that somehow took over my rhubarb when I wasn't looking. Fall is a good time to get rid of perennial weeds. Doing it in July was impossible because of the heat. Doing it in September was hard work, but at least with reasonable outside temperatures, I could finally face that nasty chore.

Get outside. Rake some leaves. Pull some prickles. It's good for you, and it's good for the garden.


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