The Ungardener reviews the new fall cleanup: Thinking small in the Fall
Before cutting down a bittersweet vine the Ungardener notices a Pandora Sphinx caterpillar on its way to a nearby Virginia creeper, which is part of its diet. 
Photo by Dee Salomon

The Ungardener reviews the new fall cleanup: Thinking small in the Fall

Most of us know that the expression ‘fall cleanup’ has become something of a misnomer. In our preparation for winter we are encouraged not to clean up the dead leaves or cut down plants as they become the winter homes for insects and other animals that keep the food chain of our habitats viable. This will look unkempt to some but may evoke a new, enlightened point of view as in ‘I understand things about nature that I did not before and have changed my behavior and broadened my aesthetic in response.” Or maybe you just want to save the fireflies. Admirable either way.

Habitats are delicate places where small changes have big impacts. We can augment birds’ essential insect diet by not shredding the leaves which on which next year’s insect eggs were laid. We can abet the spring awakening of pollinator bees that have moved into the hollow of goldenrod stems to ride out winter. The outcomes of collectively making small changes like these extend even to the human food chain. And the efforts made in the name of nature’s caretaking — however small — can also improve one’s mood and outlook.

The recent horrific news from the Middle East, on top of everything else going on in the world, sent me into an inertia powered by fear and depression. For two days I was unable to go outside for more than a dog walk. I recalled how I felt after the 9/11 attacks: a similar type of paralysis. At that time, the thing that got me back to myself was cleaning. Small tasks done meticulously: arranging drawers and closets, cleaning the floor, detailing the kitchen. At least I had control here when I had no control over the larger events that had sent me into that state of mind.

Reminded of that, I went outside to tackle more of my fall cleanup. Starting small, I concentrated on some bothersome plants that have been creeping into more space at the outside edge of the woods. One of these is a type of persicaria with small pink flowers that has efficiently spread outward into the lawn thanks to the lawnmower and crept into the woods by foot traffic. Oriental Lady’s Thumb Persicaria longiseta is a familiar plant to all of us and resembles a taller, native version, Persicaria pensylvanica.

Kneeling on a pad I pulled out five or six trugs-worth of the stuff. In its place I planted a native grass mix from Prairie Moon Nursery. It took me a couple of days to get this boring job done.

Something about the narrow focus and repetitive nature of the work seemed to be just what I needed.

Did I feel better? Of course! I was outside. I had accomplished a task. I had a sense of improving something; something I had control of. The persicaria will come back next year and the next; no doubt about that. But the effort has stopped it from spreading even more.

I recommend using this time of year to replace your old fall cleanup routine with invasive removal and planting of native perennials that require overwintering. Most herbaceous plants—native and not— have already gone to seed but those like the Persicaria longiseta are not gripping the soil and are easy to pull. Stiltgrass falls into that category. Young woody plants like burning bush are also easy to pull this time of year. In their place you can plant seed — maybe simply a shake of some aster seed off of a plant in your yard. Or seeds sourced from a reputable native seed company. Steer clear of wildflower mixes from big brands — I have noticed that they often contain non-native and even invasive seed. Ernst Seeds is a reliable source for native seeds with a helpful seed-finder tool on their website.

I will still spray the boxwood and holly with Wilt-Pruf and root prune a few shrubs I intend to re-situate in the spring. The dahlia tubers need to be dug up and stored and young trees need their tree guards installed. I have taken photos of areas I plan on changing a bit next year and will document my ideas so they are ready for spring action. There is still some time left to accomplish these tasks as well as those that will be helpful to our animal neighbors in our shared habitat.

Healing nature and ourselves.

 

Dee Salomon “ungardens” in Litchfield County.

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