In The Garden With KokHeong: Oct. 28

Los Alamos

Up until three years ago, before Los Alamos County started collecting yard wastes in brown roll carts, I would walk around my neighborhood at this time of year with a handful of printed slips of paper that read, “Hi, my name is KokHeong McNaughton, and I can use your fall leaves. Instead of taking them to the dump, please drop them off at my house at….” I would drop a slip of paper in each mailbox within a block or two of my house.

Bags of leaves in large garbage bags would magically appear at my front yard. When friends knew about this, they would also save their fall leaves for me to pick up.  

What did I do with all these leaves? Mulch, of course. I would use some right away to mulch around trees, shrubs and vegetable beds, and save some to make leaf molds as soil amendments for the next year. To make the molds, I would thoroughly wet the bags of leaves, tie them back up, punch a few holes along the sides for air, and just let them ferment over the winter and early spring. By planting time the next year, they would be ready to be mixed into the soil.

One question many people often ask is, “Should I or shouldn’t I rake my leaves up in the fall?” My granddaughter Lacey would answer, “It depends!”

Do I want an attractive green lawn unspoiled by fall leaves? Then yes. Do I want a native wildlife habitat? Then no. Leaves that fall in the forests are not raked up, and they become habitats for a wide range of life forms, including many that we can’t even see – plants, animals, fungi, and a myriad of micro-organisms. Or I can do both, and reach a happy medium that suits my needs. 

What about shrubs and other plants? Should I or shouldn’t I trim my shrubs, prune my perennials, and pull out my annuals in the fall? It depends!

I can do whatever I want in my own backyard as long as my neighbors don’t file a complaint. I prefer Spring rather than Fall clean-up for two reasons. One reason is when the new growths appear in Spring, I can better tell where to prune by cutting off the dead branches and pruning down by about a third the size of the bush or plant. The second reason is that I want to leave the seed heads around to provide winter foods for birds and other critters.

However, I would compromise a little in my front yard so as to satisfy the Community Development Department’s Nuisance Code that limits the height of “weeds” to 18”. One person’s weed is another species’ food and shelter. Ugly-looking seed heads are bird foods for the winter. Nasty, prickly brown sunflower stalks are habitats for native bees, like Carpenter Bees, which lay their eggs in the hollow stems. I have gotten two Notices of Violation from the County for having a brush pile in my front yard and having “weeds” taller than 18”, even when the “Wildlife Habitat” sign from the National Wildlife Federation was prominently displayed. Each time, I responded by showing them that the weeds were edible or wild flowers, and the brush pile provided shelters for bunnies from birds of prey overhead, and breeding grounds for snakes and other small critters, including some birds. I had to compromise by moving the brush pile to the backyard, and trimming the sunflowers and mulleins leaving 18” of bare stalks. Their seedheads on the ground continued to provide winter foods for the wildlife until snow covered them up.

I invited members of the Community Development Department for a tour of my garden where we discussed the four requirements for a wildlife habitat Certification: “Food, water, shelter, and a place to raise wildlife babies.” We also discussed and looked at examples of weeds versus wild flowers. I was invited to give a presentation on permaculture practices, and we discussed ways to conserve water in our arid climate in order to grow food successfully. The County Extension Agent and I set down with the department staff and talked about weeds, particularly about noxious versus beneficial weeds. As of this writing, I believe we are no longer required to cut down our sunflowers and other beneficial weeds as long as they post no danger to pedestrians and motorists by obstructing traffic view.

Instead of cutting down my sunflowers (both Native and Mexican) now, I save the seeds by harvesting the seed heads after the petals have shriveled and before they have completely turned brown. I put them in a paper bag, and when they dry out, I simply shake them to release the seeds. I can then feed the birds all winter by sprinkling them around my garden where there isn’t any snow. I have enough seeds to feed the birds as well as donating some to the Los Alamos Community Seed Library.

It’s undoubtedly a compromise. But so is living. 

Photo by Blaire Bradley