“Leave It Be”

November 22, 2014 frost 002

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“Leave it be.”  Words I heard with some frequency growing up….

And this simple bit of advice is often just the wisdom needed whether baking, navigating relationships, or preparing the garden for winter.

“Leave it be” insists that we quiet our strong urge to interfere with the already unfolding process.  It asks us to step back and observe; to allow for a a solution other than our own.

 

November 22, 2014 frost 007

My mother’s pound cake recipe includes the instruction to leave the oven door closed for the first 75 minutes of baking.  Opening the door too early changes the texture and rise of the cake.  Once in the oven, you must leave the cake be until the very last few minutes of its total cooking time.  You have to trust the process, and resist the urge to constantly check on it or admire it.

First time mothers soon learn the value of this wisdom, too.  When a baby is sleeping, you leave them alone to rest while you enjoy those few minutes of peace.  When a toddler is happily (and safely) playing, it is best to observe without interrupting the flow of play.

And so it is with a garden at the onset of winter. 

The urge is strong for some to tidy up the leaves as they fall, to cut back perennials as soon as they fade, to pull out the annuals as soon as they freeze, and maybe even prune back shrubby trees as soon as their leaves are gone.

And while some neighbors and neighborhoods might expect this level of neatness, it isn’t Nature’s Way. 

 

Autumn fern remains green all winter in our garden.

Autumn fern remains green all winter in our garden.

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Letting our gardens take their time to die back and settle into winter allows nature to recycle and re-purpose in interesting ways.

Leaving organic materials in place also helps insulate our marginal plants to give them a better chance to survive the winter ahead.

It isn’t so much that you avoid the fall clean up chores, just that you strategically tweak the timing of when you do them….

Here are some of those things we intend to “Leave be” for the time being, and why:

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HIbiscus seeds.  I'll finally cut these back to the ground once the seeds are gone.

HIbiscus seeds pods. I’ll finally cut these back to the ground once the seeds are gone.  These look especially pretty coated in snow.

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Seed Heads provide important food for birds and other wild things.

What remains of the African Blue Basil will feed our birds for many weeks.  This patch also provides shelter for the birds.

What remains of the African Blue Basil will feed our birds for many weeks. This patch also provides shelter for the birds.

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Basil and Echinacea seeds always attract goldfinches.  None of those seeds will be wasted when left in the garden.  So I delay pulling out frozen Basil plants as long as possible into late winter.

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Echinacea, Purple Coneflower

Echinacea, Purple Coneflower

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I won’t cut back any of the seed bearing perennial stems until I’m fairly satisfied they’ve been picked clean.  When I do finally clear up, the plant skeletons will get tossed into the ravine where they can decompose, enriching the soil.

Fallen leaves serve many useful purposes.  Blown into piles at the bases of shrubs they serve as insulation from the cold.  They help conserve moisture as a natural mulch.  As they decompose they add nitrogen and many other nutrients back into the soil.  How often have you seen someone bag their leaves for the trash, then buy bags of mulch and fertilizer for their garden?

Chopped or shredded leaves offer one of the best ammendments to improve the health and texture of the soil.  Leaf mulch attracts earthworms.  Earthworms enrich the soil wherever they burrow.

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Oregon Grape Holly appreciates winter mulch of shredded leaves.  I also sprinkle spent coffee grounds around the base from time to time.

Oregon Grape Holly appreciates winter mulch of shredded leaves. I also sprinkle spent coffee grounds around the base from time to time.  These new fallen leaves will get shredded one day soon.

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Leaf mulch also encourages the growth of mycelium,.  Mycelium, which is the permanent part of a fungus,  decompose organic matter in the soil, thus  freeing up the nutrients for use by plants.

They improve the texture of soil, and help nearby plants absorb water and nutrients more efficiently.  You might have noticed white threadlike structures growing in soil, or under a pile of leaves.  These are mycellium, and are always a good sign of healthy soil.

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November 22, 2014 frost 021

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We rake our leaves only enough to make them accessible for the lawn mower or leaf vacuum.   Once shredded, we pour them onto the ground wherever we need some winter insulation or want to improve the soil.  I always pour shredded leaves around our Mountain Laurels, Azaleas,  and around newly planted shrubs.

Marginal tropicals, like Canna and ginger lily, and our Colocasias,  react very quickly to freezing temperatures.  All of the above ground herbaceous stems and leave immediately die back.  What a mess!

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What remains of the Cannas

What remains of the Cannas

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But the tubers are still alive underground.  Cutting the stem now leaves a gaping wound where cold and moisture can enter, potentially killing the tubers before spring.

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Elephant ears, Colocasia, can't survive freezing weather.  But the tubers remain hardy in Zone 7, particularly when protected and mulched.

Elephant ears, Colocasia, can’t survive freezing weather. But the tubers remain hardy in Zone 7, particularly when protected and mulched.

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Allowing the plants to remain uncut, eventually falling back to the ground, provides insulation for the tubers and protects them from ice and cold rain.

The frozen stalks must be cleaned up by the time new growth begins, but I believe leaving them in place over the winter helps protect the plants.

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The Lantana is gone for another season after several nights in the 20s.  Birds take shelter here all winter, scavenging for seeds and bugs.

The Lantana is gone for another season after several nights in the 20s.   Birds take shelter here all winter, scavenging for seeds and bugs.

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Another marginal perennial, Lantana, isn’t reliably hardy in our Zone 7 climate.  Further south, these plants grow into large shrubs.  Most Virginia gardeners treat them like annuals.

We’ve learned that left alone, Lantana regularly survive winter in our garden.  Cutting back their woody branches too early allows cold to penetrate to the roots, killing the plant.

Leaving these woody plants standing after the flowers and leave are killed by frost gives the roots an opportunity to survive.  The roots grow very deep, and generally will survive if the plant was able to establish during the previous summer.

Although we cut back Lantana in late March or early April, new growth often won’t appear until the first week of May.

Even perennial herbs, like lavender and rosemary survive winter with less damage when left alone.

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Rosemary with Black Eyed Susan seed heads.

Rosemary with Black Eyed Susan seed heads.

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Prune lavender now and it will probably be dead by April.  Leave it be now, prune  lightly in March, and the plant will throw out abundant new growth.

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Crepe Myrtle seeds feed many species of birds through the winter.  Prune in mid-spring, before the leaves break in April.

Crepe Myrtle seeds feed many species of birds through the winter. Prune in mid-spring, before the leaves break in April.

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Trees and shrubs which need pruning will potentially suffer more winter “die back” when pruned too early.  For one thing, pruning stimulates growth.

 

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Deadheading a spent flower a week or so ago stimulated this new growth, which likely will die back before spring.  Roses will lose a few leaves over winter, but generally survive in our garden without much damage.

Deadheading a spent flower a week or so ago stimulated this new growth, which likely will die back before spring. Roses will lose a few leaves over winter, but generally survive in our garden without much damage.

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Roses pruned hard in fall will likely start growing again too soon, and that new growth is tender and likely to freeze.

Pruning flowering shrubs like Buddleia and Rose of Sharon in early winter leaves wounds, which will be affected by the cold more easily than a hardened stem.

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Rose of Sharon shrubs, covered in seeds.  These need thinning and shaping, but wait until spring.

Rose of Sharon shrubs, covered in seeds. These need thinning and shaping, but wait until spring.

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Leave pruning chores, even on fruit trees and other woody trees or shrubs until after the first of the year.  Allow the plant to go fully dormant before removing wood.  I prefer to leave pruning until February.

Our gardens depend on a rich web of relationships between bacteria, fungus, insects, worms, and decaying organic matter in the soil for their vitality.   Plants grow best in soil which supports a vibrant ecosystem of microbes and invertebrates.

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The butterfly garden this morning revealed ice "growing" out of our Pineapple Sage stems.  The temperature dropped so rapidly into the 20s last night that water in the stem froze, exploding the wood.

The butterfly garden this morning revealed ice “growing” out of our Pineapple Sage stems. The temperature dropped so rapidly into the 20s last night that water in the stem froze, exploding the wood.

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I believe that “leaving the soil be” is one of the smartest things a gardener can do.  Pile on the organic matter, but resist the urge to dig and turn the soil.  Spread mulch, but disturb the structure of the soil only when absolutely necessary to plant.

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November 22, 2014 frost 053

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Here are a few tasks, for those who want to get out and work in the garden, which you can enjoy this time of year:

1.  Shred and spread the leaves which fall near the house.  We have to sweep  copious piles of leaves which gather on our deck and patio and catch in the gutters.  Sweeping and shredding these a few times each season provides lots of free mulch.

2.  Cut the grass a final time after the leaves are falling.  The green grass clippings mix nicely with the brown leaves to speed along composting.  We catch the trimmings in a bag and spread it where needed.

3.  Plant bulbs until the ground is frozen.  Bulbs have gone on sale in many shops and can be had for a fraction of their September price.    Plant a wide variety for many weeks of spring flowers.

4.  Remodel those pots which will stay outside all winter. 

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November 12, 2014 golden day 168

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Pull out the annuals as they freeze and either plant hardy plants in their place, or make arrangements with branches, pine cones, and moss to keep those pots pretty.

5.  Pick up nuts, acorns, pine cones and fallen branches for winter arrangements and wreathes.  Cut overgrown grape or honeysuckle vines and weave them into wreath bases.    Cut and condition evergreen branches for use on wreathes and in arrangements.

6.  Sow seeds which need winter’s cold to germinate.  Broadcast the seeds where you intend for them to grow, or sow in flats which remain outside all winter.  Columbine and many other wildflowers require this winter stratification to germinate well.

7.  Take photos of the garden.  Photograph everything, and then review the photos over the winter as you make plans for spring purchases, plantings, and renovations.

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November 22, 2014 frost 006

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8.  Prepare new garden beds with “sheet composting.”  Mark where a new vegetable, flower, or shrub bed  will be planted next spring, and cover the entire area with sheets of newspaper or brown paper bags to kill any grass and weeds there now.

Pile shredded leaves, grass clippings, twigs and wood chips, coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, banana peels, and shredded shredded newspaper on the area all winter long.  These materials will slowly decompose.  Cover the whole area with a few inches of good compost or top soil a few weeks before you plan to plant.

Add edging around the bed, and it is ready for spring planting.  The materials in your “sheet compost” will continue decomposing over the next year or so, feeding your new garden bed.

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November 22, 2014 frost 008

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Working with nature always proves easier than working at cross purposes with her. 

She can make our chores lighter and our gardens more abundant when we understand her ways.

When you understand the wisdom of, ‘Let it be,” you will find that nature does much of the heavy work for you, if just given enough time and space.

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November 22, 2014 frost 009

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Words and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

9 responses to ““Leave It Be”

  1. Nice post! Your pictures illustrate perfectly. I look at them and remember back not so long ago the gardens were green & growing abundantly. Your pineapple sage had a ‘frost flower’ – a rare event. Google the term and see some awesome ones!

  2. Great tips! I suspect I did my lavender in… pruned in the Fall. I should have waited until early Spring. I’ll try again next year, and follow your advice. ❤
    Jane

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