In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
April, 2012
Regional Report

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My spring anemones are emerging through the leaf duff and will bloom beautifully in a few weeks.

Let Nature Take its Course

My plants are living in their debris. Sounds kind of radical, but in my approach to slow gardening, I'm not spending hours clearing out the dead leaves of perennial plants to make the beds look "nice." I'm redefining my idea of what nice actually is, and I'm looking to nature's systems to do it.

Natural Compost
When you take a walk through the woods, whether hardwood, softwood, or boreal, if you look at where the trees are growing, you'll notice a lovely layer of woodland duff. Duff is compost, and nature's making it all by herself. As compulsive gardeners, we often clear away the leaves and sticks from our landscape beds, put the debris into compost bins, turn and moisten the compost religiously, and then harvest the finished compost to put back on our beds to nourish the plants and keep the soil web alive. Whew! Why can't we let things lie and spend our time doing other things that need doing?

Many have taken up the system of slow gardening, and some gardeners have taken it to the next level and are starting to implement a more advanced system of permaculture. This is a carefully planned system in which full ecosystems or "food forests" are planted with companion plants that thrive together. One other element is to add animals into the mix as well. Once the system is designed and put into place, it very often maintains itself without huge amounts of tedious intervention from the gardener.

Start Small
Although designing a landscape to incorporate true permaculture food forests can make your land rich in biodiversity and productivity, you can take only certain aspects of the system and use them in your own yard without developing a full-blown permaculture system. Simply learning what plants grow together well and support and sustain each other is a start. One of the beginning principles that I plan to start using this year is to put living mulches under my trees instead of hauling in non-living mulch. It's a simple concept, really, in which you plant a groundcover that will thrive but not get out of hand, let it die back in winter, and then reemerge through the debris the following spring. Simple, yes. Can I do it and change my way of thinking about a tidy bed? We'll see.

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