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Don't Be Too Neat in the Garden

This year’s roots and leaves will improve next year’s soil

     Don’t pull those annuals! When cleaning up the garden, either mow them down or prune them out. Allow the roots to remain in the ground to rot and leave behind nutrient-rich organic matter for next year’s crop. After the roots rot, they will leave behind tunnels for the roots of next year’s crop to follow penetrating deeper into the soil where there will be more water and nutrients.
     The best way to clean the garden is to set the cutting height of your lawn mower as high as possible and mow down those dead and dying plants. Allowing dead stems to stick three or four inches above the ground will help trap leaves and other organic debris. The mower will also pulverize the organic matter, resulting in a natural mulch to protect the soil from erosion and from puddling, which is caused when large droplets of rain strike bare soil.
     To further improve your soil, rake those extra leaves into your garden where they will decompose in place and add both organic matter and nutrients to your soil. Don’t be a neat-nick in the garden. Farmers are quickly learning that allowing organic residue to remain in the soil — and eliminating plowing and discing — not only saves them money but also results in more drought-resistant crops, less dependence on fertilizers and more productive soils.
     Home gardeners should also learn the importance of no-till agriculture. Yearly spading or rototilling destroys the soil structure, resulting in soils that are impervious to water, retain less moisture and demand greater use of fertilizers.
     By adding organic matter such as leaves and other plant residues, you are helping to sequester carbon back into the soil where it belongs. As we become more aware of our carbon footprint, it is important to understand that we can all do more with organic gardening practices. This time of year, that means keeping your organic garden waste on your property by either composting or using it as mulch.
     Gardening has become the biggest hobby in this country. It not only provides relaxation but also gives a sense of pride and accomplishment. Ornamental horticulture is the state’s second largest agricultural industry in income generated and the nation’s third largest.
     The problem is that horticultural equipment suppliers have done such a good job of advertising hands-free equipment — such as baggers, and tillers on lawn tractors — that buyers assume those are recommended practices. I cringe when I see those ads with operators on shiny-new tractors vacuuming up their grass clippings.