PHOTO: Susy Morris/Flickr
Karen Lanier
October 5, 2016

Sherry Maddock runs 4th Street Farm, a rich and diverse urban farm in Lexington, Ky. She has mulched, planted, weeded and cared for her farm for the better part of a decade, turning it into a food-producing oasis. With heartfelt generosity, Maddock freely shares the abundance of greens, beans, fruits and herbs by the bagful.

This year, however, is different. Maddock is practicing loosening the reigns on this community garden as she prepares to move to Australia with her family.

During the winter and early spring, she was out of touch with her garden for several months. When she returned, the unintentional hands-off experience showed her what can happen without any human intervention.

“In the fall, I had spectacular greens, a very diverse array in the brassica family,” Maddock says. “Every bit of that has come back on its own. Either they self-seeded or maybe some of the seeds that didn’t germinate came up later. It was lovely to have a self-sown garden this spring! I didn’t have time to get out there and plant things, so the garden provided for me.”

Maddock now believes that a garden consists of a two-part relationship: stewardship, or deeply involving herself in the environment and shaping the space, and unattachment, giving the space and individual plants the opportunity to flourish on their own.

“I may only want kale because I want those leafy greens in the spring, and when that’s finished, often those plants are discarded,” she says. “Well, it’s beautiful to watch kale finish its cycle of life as it grows long stems and then flowers and forms seed heads. It’s doing what it should do, and it’s good that we’ve left it alone, because we’re not the only ones that need to benefit from what comes from the garden. We may be finished with the kale leaves, but the pollinators love those beautiful yellow and white flowers from all the brassicas.”

Maddock’s observations highlight a couple of the great reasons to go hands-off in the fall. It benefits the wildlife, the soil and the plants themselves. As for a fall cleanup, for the most part, you can just wait and do it in the spring.

Wildlife

The timing of natural cycles coincides with our own physical needs and energy level. At the end of the growing season, our bodies are tired and the days are growing shorter, cueing us to move toward rest. In the springtime, with increasing light and warmth, we’re just itching to get outside and wake up our stagnant muscles. In general, spring is the natural time to clear out plant debris to make way for new growth.

Birds and small seed-eating rodents are also designed to make the most of the fall harvest. If left to natural processes, these creatures will do the plant gene pools a big favor by dispersing the seeds far and wide as they fly above the topsoil or tunnel underneath. Most birds are not year-round seed-eaters; rather, they eat soft grubs and caterpillars in the spring, so, if you are cutting down your sunflowers and perennials while purchasing bags of seed to stock your bird feeders for the winter, you may want to re-think your system.

Over millennia, dynamic and interdependent native insects have evolved alongside native plants, and as a hobby farmer, you can make a big impact on the overall health of these insect populations, the large majority of which are considered beneficial for vegetable, fruit, nut and herb production. You can intentionally provide food for insects in the form of native plants, which will in turn attract more beneficial insects, which will control unwanted ones.

If you provide habitat for native pollinators, you will be rewarded with the literal fruits—and vegetables—of your labors. Focus mainly on native bees and parasitoid wasps.

Bees

As much as 85 percent of all crops require a pollinator to work their reproductive magic so that fruits and vegetables form. Collectively, native bees make up a powerful pollinator force, though they’re often overlooked in the shadow of domesticated honeybees.

Approximately 4,000 species of bees are native to North America, spending much of their lives in solitary cells underground, emerging to forage in the spring and summer. When they do visit flowers, they are more effective pollinators than honeybees because they are less meticulous about their work and end up spreading more pollen to more flowers. They are also ­better-suited to the climates where they are working, as are most native organisms.

Wasps

If your tomatoes were devastated by hornworm caterpillars, don’t spray: The enemy of your enemy is your friend. Braconid wasps, for example, meander about, lovely and harmless as they sip nectar from your carrot-family flowers. But just wait until they unleash their secret weapons: These wasps will insert eggs into the live hornworm or another soft-bodied target, and when the eggs hatch, the tiny larvae will suck the life out of the caterpillar, slowly devouring it. The wasps will also take care of aphids, squash bugs and stinkbugs for you.

Attract parasitoid wasps to the garden by planting species of herbs and flowers that supply the nectar and pollen, including Queen Anne’s lace, dill, cilantro and fennel—all plants you may be tempted to cut down at the end of the season.

Habitat

Many other types of beneficial insects lay their eggs in the fall under the shelter of perennial foliage. Don’t dispose of your trimmed plants—unless they are weeds, diseased or pest-ridden, of course—because you could be destroying insect eggs in the process. Instead, try creating a border around garden beds with your excess stalks, mulch, straw and leaves.

Providing cover can be as important as planting food plants for insects. Many insects go into a type of hibernation called diapause and will slow down all body functions as they wait out the winter. To do so safely, they find protection in hollow plant stems, logs, under rocks and leaf litter. Even cutting the stalks and piling them in a corner is better than getting rid of them.
Despite the importance of protecting soil, also try to allow some bare ground along outer edges. These will be used by ground-nesting bees and are less likely to be disturbed by gardening. Provide nesting areas for mason bees and carpenter bees in hollow stems or logs, and they may leave your garden shed alone.

Some great plants for attracting, feeding and sheltering beneficial insects year-round include:

  • goldenrods
  • coreopsis
  • black-eyed Susans
  • yarrow
  • purple coneflowers
  • sunflowers
  • salvias
  • penstemons
  • bunch grasses
  • Echinacea
  • culinary herbs such as lavender, sage, thyme, basil and oregano

To find specific plants that will host your region’s pollinators, use the ZIP code search function at the Pollinator Partnership’s website (www.pollinator.org/guides.htm).

If the thought of more bees and wasps is not an automatic winner in your mind, remember that insects are interwoven throughout the entire food web, and their health and abundance affect every other creature, as well as your produce.

Soil

Initially, building healthy soil requires hands-on work, layering grass clippings, manure, shredded leaves, newspaper, cardboard, food waste, compost and the like. Whatever you put into your mixture, it takes some sweat equity to build this foundation, and leaving plants standing in the autumn and planting cover crops can protect that investment.

To block prevailing winds in the cold months, plant a hedgerow out of perennials, or leave annuals standing in place. Their roots anchor the soil, and the vertical stalks and dried leaves buffer the harsh wind. Leaf mulch won’t blow away, and you will appreciate the windbreak slowing down blustery breezes during fall harvesting.

Maddock recommends letting perennials, such as asparagus, fill this niche.

“A lot of people will clear it in the fall, but I leave those ferns because I think it’s a good windbreak. For the soil, it’s more protective to have that dry brittle fern left. In the spring, I clear it when new growth is ready to come up.” Protecting the soil with these natural umbrellas also helps beneficial insects whose eggs or chrysalids are overwintering in the ground.

Hands-off also means feet-off: Remember not to tread on your beds, even when it looks like nothing is growing; stepping gently and staying off of wet soil will prevent the spread of disease and minimize soil compaction, and mulched paths between beds can provide the access you need without disturbing the soil.

Cover Crops

Fall-planted cover crops are considered green manure because of the work they do to improve soil fertility. They can be harvested and used as pathway mulch, or turned into the soil as fertilizer: Call them chop-and-drop crops, for short. They provide species-specific benefits for the garden, such as Siberian peas to fix nitrogen or comfrey for delivering trace minerals. If you are looking for some good ol’ biomass, then winter wheat and different types of ryegrass might be worth trying.

In the spring, be prepared to chop and drop the crops before they set seed, or you could wind up with too much of a good thing. Wait for a couple of days until they turn brown and then work them into the soil. Wait another few weeks before planting, so that decomposing greens won’t tie up nitrogen in the soil.

Local extension offices can recommend the best selection of cover crops for your site and the date to plant, which should be at least four weeks before a killing frost. Don’t shy away from planting cover crops that won’t tolerate a hard winter freeze: They’ll simply do you the favor of dying off before spring arrives and without going to seed. With the use of cover crops, this hands-off approach allows autumn-sown seeds to help you prepare beds for the spring by revitalizing the soil.

Plants

The only thing better than hands-off gardening is being able to harvest and eat fresh veggies year-round, and some cool-season crops can survive through the winter with a little help.
Here is a list of some common crops that you can allow to bolt and self-seed, so you can enjoy their tender greens early next year:

Remember, specific varieties that are best suited for your zone can be recommended by your local extension office.

Don’t give up on your little baby plants that overwinter: Just expect to see little to no growth until the soil warms up. They will conserve their energy and only show a few true leaves, which also reduces their chance of frost damage. They aren’t exactly growing during the winter, but they are putting energy into their root systems. Many vegetables can tolerate moderate frosts and a little snow, but you may want to be prepared to cover the tender youngsters if a harsh storm is expected.

Root Veggies

There’s no need to dig up all your root vegetables and then store them indoors when you can use nature’s root cellar and leave them in the ground. Sugar levels rise when the temperatures drop, which results in sweeter carrots, beets, rutabagas and parsnips.

To help them make it through the cold fall and winter nights, cover any exposed shoulders with soil, but let the green tops keep their heads exposed to sunlight. If temperatures are seriously dropping or you live in a more northern climate, cover the crops with a deep layer of mulch or blankets at night, and remove them during the day.

Cool-season greens, such as spinach and chard, can stay in place for winter salads, especially if you create a mini-greenhouse out of straw bales and window panes, or cover with hoops and clear plastic. When you plan your garden, situate these plants in the sunniest spot, and near a wall or fence to act as a heat sink.

Seed Saving

There are good reasons for letting some plants bolt and go to seed, not the least of which is seed saving. Handing down heirloom seeds that were bred in the field—not in a laboratory—used to be common practice.

Breeding in the field simply means that you select the best plants from the garden plots each year. Over successive generations of doing this, you wind up with seeds that are not just bred for your zone, but specifically for your site and the microclimates unique to your space.

You don’t need any special tools or a professional horticulture education to save seeds and breed your own specialized varieties. It does, however, require a little technical expertise, which can be learned from joining up with local seed-saving groups and referring to a guide book — check out The Manual of Seed Saving (Timber Press, 2013) by Andrea Heistinger for a great jumping-off point.

The beauty of this type of plant breeding is that nature does the work for you. “Whatever the time span, the environment does the selecting through variables, such as length of growing season; type and frequency of precipitation, drought, and cold periods; and intensity of light, to name but a few,” Heistinger writes.

The result of allowing nature to run its course in your fields, to some extent, cycles into even less work needed as generations of heirloom varieties improve upon the previous version. They continue to adapt genes to thrive where they are planted and, ultimately, need less fertilizer, pest management or special care.

Sometimes the most difficult thing for gardeners to recognize is that we’re not really in charge. We work in collaboration with nature, making it easier for seeds to grow and filling our harvest baskets as a reward for enabling nature’s habits.

As Maddock gazes out her kitchen window at sprawling carpets of thyme humming with pollinators, she shares her thoughts on leaving this space:

“I can’t hide from the things that hurt, so I celebrate them. Last night we sat outside, and I looked at Asian pears and green figs, and I said, ‘You know, we’re watching fruit grow that we will not eat. We won’t see it ripen.’ And there’s something beautiful about belonging to something much bigger, and the endpoint isn’t ‘I will eat that.’ We will contribute to the life of the next family and their friends that will walk into the garden.”

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of Hobby Farms.


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