Saturday, 12 April 2014

An Argument Against Raking

Every spring one of the rituals we all feel good about, and many enjoy, is the raking of garden beds. Removing all that tired-looking debris from the autumn, ground down by the ravages of freeze and thaw and snow cover, is a horticultural form of spring cleaning. And like all de-cluttering it feels like an accomplishment. You can see where you've been and feel virtuous and proactive. Right?

Well, maybe not. It is true garden beds look tired when they're untouched and they look organized and tidy when they've been raked. But when we clean them up what are we actually doing to those beloved beds?
My unraked garden bed looking admittedly a little bleak
But early species crocuses brighten it up a little 
When we rake the beds are being stripped of nature's way of returning fertility to the soil. Fallen leaves,  dead annuals and the die-off of perennials are all sources of organic material. Many resources have been taken from the soil by the plants in order to produce leaves, flowers and perhaps even fruit or nuts. The residue from the previous season is nature's way of sustainably replenishing that fertility. That garden trash is food for the microbial and worm life in the soil and they, in turn, given food and opportunity, will turn those raw materials into a vast array of nutrients. Without this ongoing feeding of the soil we are starving it. No wonder we love Miracle Gro and petroleum based artificial fertilizers. When we aren't nourishing our dirt it responds to any sustenance, even something totally artificial and nutritionally deficient. This is sounding so familiar; it's funny how the analogy of soil to people and the food for both is so completely parallel.

It is interesting to note that when we take a walk in the woods we don't look at the humusy forest floor and think, "Yuck, I need to organize some volunteers to properly rake this woods". A helpful reminder that so many of our prejudices and aesthetic biases are all about context.
Second growth woods with its carpet of fallen leaves
In fact, healthy woods are an example of a sustainable ecosystem in action. Death and regeneration follow each other as amounts of sunlight change. Fallen trees rot into the ground providing fertility and increased microbial and fungal life. There is a storied profile to any mature balanced forest. The top layer here in Ontario is hardwood trees, below are understory trees and then further down shrubs and perhaps rambles. And then there is the forest floor. Depending on availability of sunlight and soil profile there could be ferns, mosses, perennial 'weeds', ground covers and in the spring the lovely "ephemerals", ramps and at different times of the year, mushrooms.

This fallen tree will eventually return entirely to the earth
Here the stump of a felled tree - almost unrecognizable as anything but rich humus earth
There is enough soil on this exposed rock to sustain clumping grasses which will prevent water and wind erosion
A smattering of beech saplings taking advantage of the extra sunlight provided by the opening up of the trail
A bramble growing in a sunnier spot at the edge of the woods
A self seeded conifer
Even this old split cedar fence will add to organic richness as it breaks down
If gardens aren't raked, as the season progresses the embedded plants will grow and hide some of the offending mess. The organic cover will act as a thin layer of mulch conserving moisture, suppressing weeds and maintaining a much more even temperature. And the microbial life in the soil will slowly transform the raw organic material into a richer, crumbly dark chocolate cake - looking soil. Real alchemy.

Some leaves have pulled away at the base of this sugar maple revealing a beautiful dark soil

Change is possible. It is not that long ago that virtually every front yard was planted in that monoculture we call a lawn. Now it is an exception to see a front yard given over to nothing but grass. The next transition is to seeing garden 'waste' as garden 'gold'  - a resource to be treasured and revered.

It is worth remembering that the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930's happened in an organic, that is a pre-petroleum-based pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer era. But it certainly wasn't a time of sustainable agriculture. And the biggest genocide perpetrated on the soil was stripping it of its cover. Denuded of perennial grasses there was nothing to hold the topsoil in place. Grasslands, like forests, are an example of a balanced and sustainable ecosystem. And what grasslands and forests have in common is there is never a single square inch of exposed soil.

One year I had a neighbour who I didn't know very well volunteer to visit me at the farmhouse and do some work in the garden. I was thrilled because there is always much more to do than I can handle. I was aghast when she proudly pointed out to me that she had taken the initiative to carefully remove every bit of debris from under the rhubarb plant. Little did she know that I deliberately tuck all the leaves I cut off the harvested stalks around the base of the plant. Rhubarb is a perennial and a heavy feeder. Because of both characteristics it needs lost of organic material to keep it strong and long-lived. It is also very sensitive to drought and will send up flower shoots and stop producing new stalks very quickly if, without a protective mulch, it is allowed to dry out. I'll never know if my volunteer interpreted the expression on my face as shock or awe.

So let's raise a glass to indigence - at least in regards to raking our gardens. Like people, they really look much more attractive fully-clothed than naked.

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