Fall is a time to plant and 'leaf' things…
Fall is the time to plan next year’s garden, do some lawn care and plant some bulbs. Unfortunately, many homeowners are unaware some of the practices they engage in when caring for their lawns and gardens are not necessarily good for them or the planet.
I am waiting on my garlic bulbs to arrive and have cleared out a bed for them. Many of my friends grow garlic, and I am inspired to try it myself. I planted a few old “food” grade bulbs last fall, and they did pretty well, but now I have ordered some interesting varieties.
The first time I saw an honest to goodness field of garlic was when I did an interview for my master’s degree in 1998. Lucky for me one of the most informed organic farmers in Ohio happened to live just down the road from me. Mick Luber is the long-time owner of Blue Bird Farms in Harrison County.
When I arrived at Mick’s farm to conduct the interview, he showed me how to plant garlic. Quickly, we were planting and talking about how he got into organic farming. He explained that one day when he was young, he was at a farmers’ market looking at produce. He noticed one of the vendors had many lesions on his hands. When Mick inquired about it, the farmer said it was from the pesticides that had been sprayed on the produce before harvesting.
Mick said that was the moment he thought, “If farm chemicals did this to his hands, what do they do to us when we are eating that food?” It’s a good question and one Rachel Carson explored in her famous book, “Silent Spring.” She focused on the compound Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, which was used to combat malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Paul Muller, who discovered DDT’s effectiveness against insects, would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1948.
Carson questioned the toxicity of organochlorinated chemicals that bioaccumulate in fat cells and take decades to degrade. She questioned the effects of this chemical on insects, birds, amphibians and humans. For that, she was attacked by the chemical industry.
The pesticide industry has tried to convince us we must wage war on Mother Nature. This is not surprising if you consider the industry sells $10 billion worth of its chemical products each year. Many of the pesticides and insecticides developed since the early 1900s share a common goal with the military industrial complex: that goal is to kill.
Historian Edmund P. Russell III said, “Wars against nations and wars against nature had deep connections.”
During WWI insecticides were developed as by-products of research into nerve gas and explosives. Conversely, cyanide and arsenic were initially used to fumigate orchards but were carried over to military use. As we demonized the human enemy in war by often calling them pests, we also referred to insects as the “invading army.”
A 2018 article in JSTOR by Matthew Willis stated, “The August 1945 Time magazine cover had a photo of the Hiroshima atomic blast along with an announcement that DDT would be unrestricted for civilian use.”
The article goes on to point out that nontarget organisms destroyed by DDT were ignored. Our chemical war against insects and weeds continues today as we head out to our lawns and gardens armed with insecticides and herbicides.
The most common chemicals used by homeowners are glyphosate (Roundup), 2, 4-D, and permethrin. According to Dr. Phil Landragan, there are concerns about the connection between pesticides and damage to developing nervous systems in children. Some compounds also are linked to learning disabilities, as well as diseases like Parkinson’s and cancer.
Spreading toxic chemicals and fertilizers on the lawn and garden significantly contributes to the pollution of surface waters. There’s a reason Lake Erie and the Ohio River have algal blooms in the summer: excess nutrients.
As fall arrives, many homeowners become obsessed with keeping leaves off their lawns and their sidewalks and driveways. In some towns leaves are raked to the curb for pickup or bagged for garbage pickup, where they end up in a landfill. The EPA said, “10.8 million tons (of leaves) went to landfills, accounting for just under 8% of all waste in landfills.”
The homeowner is committing “nutrient suicide” when he attacks the leaves falling on his property. If you remember your physical science class in high school, you might recall the fact that it takes over 500 years to create 1 inch of topsoil. That’s without removing the leaves. So what are you losing when you take away the leaves?
David Mizejewski, a naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation, said, “Leaves cover up root systems, preserve soil moisture, suppress weeds and other plants.”
Leaves also slowly break down and return nutrients like carbon, phosphorus, sulfur, nitrogen, potassium, calcium and magnesium to plants.
Additionally, these leaves and leaf litter provide a winter home to many species. It’s not just leaves going to the landfill, but also the larva of fireflies, the cocoons of Luna moths and hibernating woolly bear caterpillars. The leaves also are a food source for many beneficial insects.
Becca Rodomsky-Bish of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Margaret T. McGrath, a Cornell plant pathologist, said when it comes to garden and lawn cleanups, “less is best.” Certainly, sickly ornamental plants and vegetable beds benefit from removal of materials that could carry pests and pathogens, but there is no need for a full-scale removal of every bit of debris.
Bees and other burrowing insects rely on the insulation of leaves to get them through a harsh winter. The leaves also provide shelter for detritivores and spiders. Leave your flowering plants and berry bushes like blackberry and elderberry alone as they provide seeds and fruits for birds and bees. The leaves also are habitat for salamanders, chipmunks, box turtles, toads, shrews and earthworms.
When you rake or use a leaf blower on the layer of leaves, you are destroying a mini ecosystem. Using a gas-powered leaf blower also exposes you to a high decibel level of noise (95-115), equivalent to a chain saw. Gas-powered blowers also emit noxious fumes and greenhouse gases.
This fall consider a simpler, less destructive way to address lawn maintenance. If you must remove a heavy leaf layer, mulch the area with a mower or rake and compost the leaves for next spring. By doing this, you will save time, save plant nutrients, save space in a landfill and, best of all, you will provide a home and food for the creatures who live in your landscape.