NATIONAL LEAF MONTH: That’s what I’d declare it if I were in charge of such things. November is nonstop leaves here, and a good rake is my constant companion. But how much leaf cleanup to do, and how much to let lie in the name of the greater environmental good?Whatever tool you choose—leaf blower, anyone?—and however hard you work, thanks to that prankster the wind there is no perfection possible, though, and maybe that’s a good thing, because leaves left to lie where they fall can be a home to unseen beneficial creatures (more on that below).
In go the last bulbs (including garlic, if it hasn’t yet); into the cellar go the last tender things. I’m still weeding (true; until the ground freezes and I can no more), mowing (until it stops growing, I’ll persist)—and also saving some seeds for use next year.
If I didn’t have a big fence, I’d be upping my deer-control measures right now, too, like this. The full to-do list for the month:
Garden Elsewhere? Regional Links
THE ORGANIC-GARDENING approach and the how-to tips I offer apply most anywhere–pruning a rose or sowing a tomato seed is similar, wherever the rose or tomato may grow. But the when is not the same. To adjust timing: My garden is in Zone 5B, in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA) area, where frost can persist well into May and return in October. You may need next month’s chores, or last month’s (the archive is here). For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up links to calendars and checklists from around the nation (and the U.K.). But read on first, because I’m betting there’s something here for you, wherever you may dig, weed, or prune.
Transforming Leaves and Other Debris
I RAKE to eliminate thick accumulation in the formal beds and borders (an invitation to voles and mice in winter, and also an obstacle next spring to emerging plants). With rake or mulching mower, I also work to prevent matted buildup of leaves on the lawn. The result of both efforts gets recycled into mulch and soil-improving compost; I never send leaves away from my property to the “trash.”
To up the habitat value of my landscape, though, I let leaves lie where they fall wherever I can, simulating what would be happening on the forest floor. The ecology of leaf litter is surprising, says Rhiannon Crain of The Habitat Network, a joint project of Cornell Lab of Ornithology and The Nature Conservancy. A lot of species of Lepidopteran caterpillars leave their larvae and eggs on tree leaves of their host species in the fall months, so that come spring the emergent insects will still be near their host tree. Read more about the importance of leaf litter, and other nature-inspired, less-fussy cleanup tactics.
Though I lamented the apparent extinction of really high-quality bamboo leaf rakes, and at first resisted a new-fangled metal version, it turns out it’s really good; here’s that story (and that rake). Other gardeners swear by their leaf blowers, and sometimes I’m tempted.
LEAVES that we do have to move off key spots make great leaf mold when composted to add back as organic matter to beds. Start a leaves-only compost pile for leaves you do collect, and use the proceeds as mulch next year. Running over dry leaves (and other dry non-woody material) with the mower to shred will reduce the area needed, and speed its breakdown, or so will the best blowers and bigger vacuum-like gear.
BE A COMPOSTING PRO: Pile up materials as you cut back faded plants, following Lee Reich’s easy plan (video how-to included). First extract finished compost and topdress your vegetable-garden beds with it, getting a jump on spring soil prep.
GOT ANOTHER COMPOST QUESTION? I bet my compost FAQ page has the answer.
Best Practices for the Birds
IT’S FEEDER SEASON, even for those of us who don’t feed in frost-free months (or can’t, because of marauding black bear, as is my issue). I begin again when there is frost in the ground, around month’s end, or when the snows fly. Are you ready? The feeder I chose shuts when a heavier animal tries to latch onto it (you know who I am talking about). The seed chamber is also cleverly ventilated, so humidity or damp doesn’t result in gunked-up seed in the tube. It’s small enough to be very easy to clean regularly, to prevent transmission of disease from bird to bird. More on how (and what) I feed birds.
MORE TIPS for putting out the welcome mat for the birds include cleaning out nest boxes and these other important to-do’s, and also plan to help birds stay safe from window strikes and predation by cats (expert advice on that).
UNFROZEN, AVAILABLE WATER 365 days a year is the Number 1 thing you can do in support of birds and other wildlife. I keep a hole in the surface of each of my water gardens, so overwintering frogs and salamanders and fish don’t suffocate, and so birds and animals can have a drink (or a splash). Water-garden wintertime prep.
MAP YOUR HABITAT, and learn how to up the biodiversity quotient. I’m learning so much by using The Habitat Network’s free YardMap tools and articles. Looking at my garden in map format—not photos, or out the window—is far more analytical, and I’m seeing opportunities for bird- and pollinator-attracting enhancements.
BET YOU WISH you’d added more woody plants that show off in fall. Plan to do so for next year–many can even be planted this late in autumn, if your nursery or a mail-order source still has stock. Or what about my top conifers for winter, and year-round, beauty?
FALL IS A GREAT TIME for planting woody things, though here in Zone 5B I stop planting around early November. If you are still at it where you garden: Don’t dig an extra-large hole, or amend the backfill with lots of compost or peat moss. Here’s why that’s bad for transplants—plus how to prune their roots before planting.
BE EXTRA-VIGILANT cleaning up under fruit trees, as fallen fruit and foliage allowed to overwinter invites troubles next season. So will mummies (shriveled fruit hanging on the trees). Best to pick and remove, though I confess to leaving mine hanging for the birds, who adore it.
SCOUT FOR VIBURNUM BEETLE later this month, when leaves fall and egg cases are easier to see. Remove cases by pruning off affected wood, before April-ish, to reduce larvae and beetle issues next year. The bump-like cases are usually on the underside of youngest twigs. I also watch in May for larvae hatch of any I missed and rub the twigs then to squash the emerging pests.
ALWAYS BE on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in trees and shrubs and prune them out as discovered. This is especially important before winter arrives with its harsher weather, where weaknesses left in place invite tearing and unnecessary extra damage. Remove suckers and water sprouts, too, but don’t do aesthetic pruning now. A pruning roundup is here.
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Image(s) Courtesy of A Way to Garden