By Brenda Shufelt
In Margaret Roach’s October 26, 2022 New York Times article "How to Do a More Conscious Fall Cleanup" she writes: “There’s a valuable education, and a lot of life, tucked between and beneath all those fading bits.” That piqued my curiosity and made me wonder if being more educated on fall and spring yard cleanup of my, albeit small, property would also result in a more environmentally friendly approach. The article championed a more thoughtful approach versus a “raised earth policy“of cleaning up so I thought I might be onto something.
Luckily, since Ms. Roach highlighted Claverack resident, gardener, and landscape designer Peter Bevacqua throughout her article, I thought I would reach out to him to check on my theory. I interviewed Peter at the Claverack Library and share what I learned here.
Peter gave tip after tip on how to care for one’s land but he also discussed the philosophy behind all of this advice. Rather than a wholesale approach of raking leaves and cutting plantings down to get rid of the “mess” when fall hits and again when spring comes in, Peter takes a more nuanced, individual approach to the growing things in the various areas of his property.
Looking is the most important thing; getting to know your land is paramount because every land has its idiosyncrasies. As you work on it you will discover that the land can teach you what it needs.
The goal with this approach is to create a balance on your land. This will take time; most properties are off balance because of the chemicals that have been used on them. In the beginning it may appear that you’re going backward because you may have more damage when you’re not using pesticides but you are actually building toward the balance. That balance is in things taking care of each other within the environment they are in.
There will be times you just say: “Is this working; can’t I just get out the Round Up?” but it is all going towards the health of your land. The small steps you make have real consequences and you will, even by the following year, see that those small steps have a big effect on your land.
Woodland areas need little clean up; a lot of the dead things will decompose naturally through the seasons. You can even leave a brush pile in an out of the way area to help insects and animals survive the winter then get rid of it in the spring.
A fallen willow limb in a wilder area may be left on the ground year-round to become host for various living beings.
Similarly, stacking wood between standing trees can be decorative and provide a habitat to many organisms, especially in the winter.
There is a lot of discussion these days about the declining number of honey bees but solitary bees are also important. In preparation for winter they can burrow into hollow stems or branches to build homes. Some people even make (or buy!?) an insect hotel with lots of holes in a log or block of wood. These solitary bees, like the mason bee, don’t make honey but they are crucial pollinators.
The more cultivated formal areas can be cleaned all the way down but anything you can leave gives more habitat for the various animals that overwinter here. For example, grasses and plants can be left in the fall or cut part way down (leaving about 12”) and they can become winter homes for insects. The goal is to create an overwintering place for insects and small animals.
In certain places you can leave the fall leaf litter (or some of it) over the winter. Our area tends to be limey so a little acidity from the decomposing leaves is fine and can add nutrients to the soil. If you have a small property you can mow the leaves and they will decompose by spring.
All of these things add up to a gentler approach that helps enrich your soil and encourages animal life. In the spring after the weather settles, you can then cut down your grasses and rake up anything that remains since the overwintering insects and animals are now out and about.
Spring & Summer
During spring cleanup don’t rake the beds out too soon. You may still get a couple of freezing nights and the leaves can protect new growth. Wait until you see little things peeking through.
In spring look for dead branches to remove; anything that’s diseased or damaged coming out of the winter.
In the warmer months, as you are dealing with insects that do not help the plants you are cultivating, start with the least potent measure and move up from there. Soapy water can be the first line of defense. Neem Oil, an organic insecticide, is a good next step but may burn some plants so always follow directions.
Also, you may want to identify plants for your garden or property to create a habitat for particular insects. Peter has planted Sweet Bay Magnolia in order to “cultivate” the Giant Silk Moth and, since planting, has begun to see some of the moths on his property including cocoons in the winter.
Peter concluded by saying that people should not feel the tips and advice he gives are the only way to garden. Rather every person should explore the process of what is right for them and their property/land. There is an emotional piece to gardening that soothes something in you; you feel part of something bigger…because you are.
Peter Bevacqua’s approach to gardening is also featured in the newly released American Roots : Lessons from the Designers Reimagining our Home Gardens curated by Nick McCullough, designed by Allison McCullough, and written by Teresa Woodard.
Photos by Peter Bevacqua from the Bevacqua/King gardens.