I do not have a "neat and tidy" garden. I do have a bountiful, healthy, organic garden. It turns out that the two are closely tied together -- my sloth in the cleaning department has provided my garden with great soil. This isn't just rationalization. Soil science is solidly in my corner.
While I try to incorporate all of the tenets of permaculture (and I hope you check out Sami's articles on permaculture principles -- it's a must if you want to grow a healthy garden) in my garden, my favorite is this one: use biological resources. This is what Sami calls "the lazy principle."
Here's the thing. We know that soil is more than just some inert material that is convenient to stick plants into. We know that it is a thriving ecosystem, a veritable organism all its own. We know that every member of the cast, from the tiniest bacteria to the worms, from mammals to plant life, has an important part to play. It is a system that works best when we step back and leave it alone. Seriously. How often have you heard someone say "hey, we better go rake up all that leaf litter in the woods -- it' s not good for the plants!" But every fall, it's a guarantee that you'll see people frantically trying to get every last leaf out of their garden beds. Why?
We've been told that leaving leaf litter contributes to disease problems. This is a problem only if you've had disease problems the previous season, in which case, yes, leaves should be raked up and disposed of. We've been told that leaving litter in the garden creates homes for rodents that will then devour our plants. This isn't a problem if you ensure that any leaf litter in your garden is pulled a few inches away from the crowns and stems of plants. The other argument is that "it looks messy" to leave fallen leaves in the garden. I can't do much for that argument, other than gently suggest that it may be time to lighten up a bit.
Stop Doing These Three Garden Tasks
- Stop raking all of the leaves, mulch, pine needles -- whatever -- out of your garden beds. Naked soil is unhappy soil. A good layer of organic matter on the surface of the soil protects it from erosion, provides food for soil organisms, and helps maintain consistent soil moisture levels -- all good things.
- Stop digging or pulling up annual plants. Say your vegetable garden (or annual flower garden, or herb garden) is done for the season. Frost has killed everything back, and it's time to remove the spent plants. Generally, we go out there and pull the entire thing out of the ground, roots, soil, and all. Don't do that anymore. Just cut the stem off at the soil surface, leaving the roots behind. The timing of this practice is what makes it so great for your soil. When you leave the roots in the soil through the winter, they provide food for soil organisms all winter, when they need it most because there's not a whole lot going on otherwise. Because soil organisms have food, they'll multiply in your garden soil, making it even healthier by spring. If you pull out the roots, you rob them of a food source, and you have to start all over again in the spring trying to increase the life in your soil. Leave those roots in place!
I hope I've convinced you to start slacking off in your garden, just a little bit. Your soil, and your plants, will thank you.