Ditch Your Leaf Blower and Your Garden Will Rise From the Dead this Halloween
October 17, 2020
Halloween 2020 won’t be be the same as pre-Covid and it won’t be the same as when my son was five and dressed as a silver-suited Jeremy Mouse from his beloved Tiptoes Lightly stories.
Nor will it be the same Halloween as when I was young and impressionable and my brothers made mischief. Shaving cream cans modified with needle and flame to shoot the most powerful arch of foam, they were tricksters of the night. I followed in awe.
This year is different in so many ways, but, turn to your garden, to the natural cycles out your door, off your device, and you’ll see familiar patterns. Webs draped from ruby splotched viburnum to paling akebia, heavy with dew and fat-bodied garden spiders, make the calendar come to life. Early morning walks, now in the fog-muted dark are lit only by the orange glow of bike path lanterns. In-breath laden with smells of skunk (or is it weed curing?) and ground fall fruit set the mood. A single dandelion stalk, sparkling with wishes not-yet-blown, emerges from the chocolatey-churned soil of a gopher mound. Halloween is near.
Jack-o-lanterns and black cats, cauldron fires and witches hats – orange and black are the holiday colors. The garden plays out these colors and merges them into brown. The glowing green of spring grows dusty by summer’s end, chlorophyll’s departure revealing yellow, orange, red, and even purple. But, ultimately, dying plants yield to brown.
Look at a rainbow lit up in a stormy October sky, and you’ll see no brown. I overheard a computer graphics guy on my son’s You Tube video say that the brown light we see when an image of toasty coffee beans appears on our screen only looks brown because of it’s context. It’s really dark orange (black + orange = brown).
Artists, however, perceive and make use of a rainbow of browns. Khaki, buff, fallow, russet, sepia, umber, mummy, and taupe are described in Kassia St. Clair’s “The Secret Lives of Color”.
Do we appreciate brown in artworks only because of their context?
In the garden, brown means death. Death is indeed the theme of the season, and it’s the dead we celebrate at the Halloween holidays, whether that’s spooky skeletons in your yard or a respectful altar of your ancestors favorite foods. However, you were likely taught to remove all signs of death and decay from the ground in order to keep things neat and tidy. If you hire a conventional yard maintenance crew, you’ll never see a brown bit left to lie. There’s no honoring of the nurture we receive from what’s come before.
Not being one of those conventional types of businesses, I found myself enjoying the birdsong in Richard’s yard recently. Bushtits twittered to a feast at his well-tended feeders, fleeing at the first blast of the leaf blower in the neighbor’s yard. All along the adjoining fence line and throughout the yard, the mow and blow guys did their thing, removing all brown, all decay, all evidence of the season. Leaf blowers have been described as instruments of “insect armageddon” and were nearly banned in Germany.
Richard, however, has followed his appreciation of birds and insects by cultivating an affection for death, an affection for brown. Perennial stalks stand tall through winter. And he’s always kept yard debris on site, either tucked around the perennials in the lazy gardener’s self-mulching style, or, the larger fallen limbs and such are draped across the forested slopes where they slow erosion and cover bare ground.
Grubbing out the overly vigorous volunteer false strawberry (Waldsteinia) in Richard’s garden, I greet earthworms, centipedes, pearlescent snail eggs and their predators, the ground beetle. This mulch-y layer of garden death is full of life. Above ground, bleached tan stalks of cow parsnip are left standing, as are darker echinacea stems and the still green goldenrod. Their seeds feed birds, their stalks host larvae, their decay hosts life.
It’s not until February or March, just before Spring’s new growth pulses green revitalization, that we cut back all the perennials and grasses. And even then, we strew the debris around, uncovering the crowns of perennials and shifting bulky materials under the shrubs rather than hauling it away. All that dead plant matter quickly disappears, or more accurately, it transforms to compost with the help of your friendly garden pill bug and other detritivores (yes, death eating is a thing, though not likely to become a diet trend). That means healthier plant growth with less work!
This Halloween as you reconsider traditional ways to celebrate during a pandemic, please also reconsider traditional fall cleanup in your yard. Cultivate curiosity about the happenings amidst your browning plants. As Karen Daubman of the New York Botanical Garden says, “you don’t need a class to learn plants – you need curiosity. If you pay attention, you’ll pick up on the rhythms of horticulture.” Let the rhythms of this season teach you to appreciate how death feeds life, and how there is beauty there, in the varying shapes of seed heads, in the sway and dazzle of tall grasses in a storm, and in the small creatures breathing.
Honoring ancestors at Dia de los Muertos ofrendas translates to a reverence for what’s come before. In the natural garden, that looks like a celebration of all the brown beauties – the strawberry blonde braids of northern sea oats (Chasmanthium), the cocoa spears of gay feather (Liatris), the lacy forms of astilbe seed heads catching the low-angled autumn light, and the timely black witches hats of Echinacea cones. Holster your shears and see how animated your garden becomes. Olive gold warblers bend six-foot-tall evening primrose stalks as they perch and feast. Closer inspection, even down to hands and knees, reveals tiny holes in dried perennial stalks where native bees have packed pollen and eggs for the winter.
Channel all your urges to neat and tidy to the paths and patios, decks and porches. Raking and sweeping are wonderful ways to move your body. Trim anything too reminiscent of a rat’s nest in the perennial garden (my beloved Geranium ‘Rozanne’ gets this treatment). Then leave the rest to stand as it grew through winter, hosting the next generation of life in your garden.
When you cultivate an affection for brown, you enrich the living world outside your door. In return, the garden nurtures your soul. As Robin Wall Kimmerer says, we can “imagine a different relationship in which people and land are good medicine for each other.” With Halloween as the time when the veils between the living and the dead are thinnest, how will you honor your garden’s ancestors? How will you be good medicine for your land?
In closing, I offer a collection of seed heads. Would you admire them as beautiful in your garden?