November 08: Your Garden

November 08: Your Garden


Death in the garden

If life draws us into the garden, death—not to be too dramatic about it—waits there too. That’s part of the gardener’s education. Take leaves, for instance.

As the great Brit Graham Stewart Thomas wrote, with admirable English restraint, “If you garden hand in hand with leaves—either green and growing or brown and decaying—you will find gardening much easier.”

November in the garden

Shred or mow leaves.

Recycle plants.

Bye-bye, Bambi.

Blazing autumn colors reflect exposed sugars and carbs that leaves were producing all summer under their cloak of chlorophyll. When they fall, bacteria and fungi break it all back down into basic nutrients of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (the iconic N-P-K you see on fertilizer bags) that complete the cycle by replenishing the plants that produced them.

Decaying organic matter, whether “hot” compost cooking in layers with bacteria and nitrogen from manures, grass clippings and a sprinkling of top soil, or a “cold” leaf pile moldering along with only fungi, is a genuine magic elixir for the garden: life into death into life. It nourishes soils and roots, breaks up heavy clay for better drainage and tilth and has nothing to do with petroleum. What’s not to like?

It’s all about compost. As the great Brit Graham Stewart Thomas wrote, “If you garden hand in hand with leaves—either green and growing or brown and decaying—you will find gardening much easier.”

You can buy compost or just make it yourself. Panorama Farms in Earlysville has used City of Charlottesville leaves for quite a few years, mixing them with turkey litter as the basis of their legendary Panorama Paydirt compost, but as long as you have a bit of ground and some growing things, you can recycle spent plants back into the ground. Make a bin from straw bales or wooden packing palettes. In smaller spaces, use stacks of plastic trays or barrels with a crank turner to suck up kitchen waste like eggshells and coffee grounds. Chop up larger stalks before you add them to speed up decomposition and turn it all frequently for good air circulation. Contact the Extension Agency ( or 872-4580) for their handy how-to compost handouts.

Some people tuck away free-standing cylinders of chicken wire in the back of beds to fill with fall clean-up litter: leaves, weeds not gone to seed, small twigs, etc. It begins to decay over winter and you can spread it out as nourishing mulch when you wake the beds in the spring.

If you’re overwhelmed with heavy oak leaves, consider mowing them into bits or shredding with a rented leaf shredder to reduce their bulk. If they don’t smother the grass, leave them on the lawn to feed the soil.

Keep as much as you can from the garden and import as little as you must. If you do purchase fertilizer, look for organic products instead of petroleum-based chemicals.

After a couple of decades here in the hollow, I’m getting serious about growing vegetables, and that means dealing with the deer. The pressure of the herd has steadily increased over the years to the point where a few strands of wire at knee length and an energetic Jack Russell (they make their peace eventually) just don’t cut it. A friend in Crozet has a special permit to shoot deer that threaten crops, but that’s a bit more death in the garden than I care to deal with.

Ten-foot-tall plastic netting is affordable and works well in woodland gardens where it blends in with trees, but out in the open it’s not particularly attractive and our two small vegetable beds are very prominent, flanking the main path into the larger ornamental garden. So with aesthetics and practicality firmly in mind, the search for the perfect deer fence begins. The winner announced next month.—Cathy Clary

Reptile rex

Called by turns “mother-in-laws’ tongue” or “snake plant” for its slim, sharp-pointed, vertically-growing leaves, this herbaceous perennial is a lot nicer than either of its names suggest. For one thing, it reduces indoor air pollution by absorbing poisonous air-borne substances. 

Snake plants don’t want too much agua.

The sansevieria (official name) needs only infrequent watering (fortnightly) because it holds a lot of water in its leaves, adding to their toughness in the face of neglect. If overwatered, it has a tendency to rot and attract bugs.

Choose from ‘Hahnii’ or ‘Golden Hahnii’ varieties for small settings like 6" pots, or the larger ‘Laurentii’ as a stand-alone specimen. Favorite soil: three parts loam, one part sand.—Lily Robertson

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