Fall into Rhythm – Rethinking Garden Cleanup
October 27, 2021
Stormy gusts in the night woke me briefly with thoughts of the raging sea. Come sunrise, all was speckled gold. Walnut leaves, their individual leaflets torn from the stalk, patterned the gray of the flagstone patio as well as the rag rug at the threshold of my open sliding door. And the sun sparkled through retreating clouds.
Later, on my way out big leaf maple strewn Dillard Road for a consultation, Pink Floyd was interrupted on the radio with a blaring advertisement from Stihl promoting this as the season to get out the power tools and GET YOUR CHORES DONE.
When did this become a season defined by chores and power tools? Why do leaves on the ground mean work rather than beauty, life, and celebration of change?
Let me clean the rain from my glasses to tell you something about gardening in Fall: those leaves blown on patio and path? The best time to embrace them as a chore is when you need to get your teenager out of their room and off their device. Give them a task to be proud of, a way to contribute to the family and to engage with real life. (If you don’t have a teenager, find one in your neighborhood or borrow mine!)
This Sunday afternoon, my son chose raking the sidewalk over the dog park or working out on our home rowing machine. He knows what’s good for him. Rhythm of the rake, rain on hood, whoosh of wind, and slough of leaves lifted and dumped. I pruned the budded silverberry – its heavy lean towards the street remedied with decisive cuts, while Alder pulled the red metal tines through Mexican feather grass and over gravel path.
Rain wet my thighs, insistent in its increasing rhythm, nudging me indoors. I remembered the creative productivity tip of the “onesie”. Focusing on one thing, one very specific thing, even writing it down in large print on a piece of paper, is a great way to do the thing that’s important without distractions. All the middling priorities vanish when light shines only on the one thing. Today my “onesie” was to prune the silverberry. Not to tend the entire bed, not to prune all the shrubs, pull all the weeds, trim all the stray bits. No, that’s summer ambition. Today I pruned the silverberry. And now I’ll take a bath, read a book, and admire the view from indoors of rounded silverberry gently swaying with the gusts.
Syncing up with nature and the flow of time through the year, autumn is a time to embrace the onesie, to ease back, to slow down, to soften like the soil wet after long drought.
To share time with nature in the garden this Fall means to go out during sun breaks to bask, to skip nimble-footed over puddles, or to gaze from the coziness of the indoors as raindrops stutter and race down the window pane. It means pushing leaves wet onto beds or catching them dry and crisp for the child-like joy of raking them on the fly. It means to quiet down the frenetic pace of summer.
Shortening days speak rest to your nervous system.
Leaf blowers, on the other hand, tighten your jaw, rattle your nerves and blast disharmony through the neighborhood. (And this only highlights leaf blowers’ effects on our species. Consider the pervasive annihilation the things perpetrate—blasting the carefully constructed roofs from nesting bumblebees and slug-eating ground beetles; the down comforter of butterfly larvae and earthworm rudely ripped away.)
Connect your gardening rhythms with nature, with the season. Pay attention to what’s happening and act accordingly—not to control the life of your garden, but to be a part of it, to move as it moves, to harmonize in sync with the beat of the raindrops and whistling wind.
A Swedish study points to the benefits of “the social regulation of time”, as in the shared weekend or commonly held vacation days off. People are less likely to buy antidepressants when their schedules are synced up with their friends and families.
That benefit extends to the joy-bringing effects of syncing up with the rest of life, with nature, with the more-than-human residents of our gardens and towns. What’s happening as the days grow shorter and rains return? What does that mean for our garden and how we are, in it and with it. Do we work as vigorously as we did last spring when the big re-planting of the border kept us active and driven? Or can we imitate the heavy seed heads bending towards earth, leaning into a long, dark rest and quiet, deep growth?
To fall into the rhythms of your community brings you a sense of belonging that we’ve been hard pressed to replicate on zoom and behind masks over the last year and half. Supplement that by falling into rhythm with nature in your garden. Embrace a seasonal regulation of time.
As Oliver Burkeman writes in Four Thousand Weeks, we greatly benefit from “surrendering to communal time”. Deep relationships take root with shared rhythms. A neighborhood street full of Sunday rakes scraping sidewalks unifies the community. Hired out blowers have the opposite effect.
Formal or traditional gardening is bent on taming and controlling nature. Nothing is surrendered to the broader community of insects, birds, mycelium. There’s a lack of trust in nature and her processes. This means ceaseless work and an aesthetic of rigid order throughout the grounds surrounding your home. It’s the man versus nature approach that’s gotten our kind into the real crises of climate change, species extinction, and systemic racism.
Gardening for habitat means gardening for the greater community. The surrender this new approach asks for is a letting go of dated aesthetics. Especially during this season when plants shift from perky lushness to dormant browns, we need to re-learn what it means to be a good gardener. We need to re-think fall clean up.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation educates about how leaf debris provides food and shelter for butterflies, beetles, bees, moths, and more. If you enjoy all these wonders in your garden, you’ll become like my friend Jane who eagerly collected her early fallen leaves to mulch her garden beds before a similarly minded neighbor swooped in on the hoard. Pick up a “Leave the Leaves” sign from the society if you have neat and tidy neighbors who need educating about this new aesthetic.
Fall is a season of change. For me, it’s often been the best time to start a new habit or set a new goal, to make a change in my life. Could it also be the season where we, collectively as gardeners, inhabit a bold change in our practices of fall clean up?
Gold leaves on the patio represent more than a chore to cross off the list. Their colors and patterns are an expression of nature’s beauty to celebrate and to sync up with.
On a walk through my neighborhood, this display of creativity with leaves felt like the right response—a celebration and collaboration with the season, no power tools required.