Fall has us busy on the farm this year. The truth is, I have never been much of a fall farmer. After the long, hot hours of summer work, I am usually ready to turn my attention elsewhere as we transition into winter. This year is different because I really need to farm. Pandemic life has made what we can produce at home a very important piece of our income. I spent a good deal of my day this past Sunday transplanting bok choy, romaine, lettuce, and arugula into beds inside our high tunnel for winter harvests. If you are wondering what a high tunnel is, envision a greenhouse with a garden inside it. With the power of the sun coming in through the plastic, it extends our farm season into fall and winter as well as giving us a big boost in the spring.
The work I am doing now is much like the work I did in the spring—shuttling tender young greens into spots where they can mature. But I am also mulching and putting beds to “bed” for the winter outside. As I do this work, I am reminded once again of the circle of life. Growing food, indeed growing anything, is about caring for the soil. Soil is the endless cycle of life and death. To farm is to be intimately involved in life and death.
Farming engages me on all fronts–physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional. If you have followed my work closely (or read my bestselling book–shameless plug), you know that resilience is my currency. When I talk about resilience, I break it down into those 4 same categories–physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional. The act of engaging with and nurturing the earth is a powerful and reciprocal force that charges my batteries at the same time that it clarifies both the big and small questions of life. I am acutely aware that everything we have, including our very lives, is because of the land.
That’s why I am so passionate about sharing what I call a universal truth: Our health, the quality of our food, and the state of our planet are all interconnected. I believe we all know that, but we don’t live it out. One way we can honor that truth and recognize that what we do to the land we do to ourselves, is to take a stand in our own backyard. If you have land to call your own, that’s an amazing privilege. Get busy being a better inhabitant of it. You are part of the web of life there and all your actions in that space should be about supporting as much life as possible.
It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s imperative. Bird populations have declined 29% since the 1970s. I was born in 1971 so 1 out of every 3 birds is gone in my lifetime. 40% of insect populations are in decline. A study in Germany found a 75% decrease in insect biomass in some locations. Again, this decline has been in my lifetime. It’s rare that a bug even hits my windshield these days. These numbers are not just startling, they are terrifying. As we fill the world with parking lots, cornfields, superstores, and endless strip malls, we are squeezing out life.
Nature’s last stand is not somewhere far away. It’s in your yard. Here are some concrete actions you can take right now to build the resilience of your backyard (and, in turn, yourself).
- Death creates life. Don’t rake the leaves. Let your ornamental beds be. All of that death will feed the soil and support insects and wildlife that need to overwinter and eat. Many native solitary bees need hollow stems to overwinter in. Cocoons lie in the fallen leaves. Wait. Clean your beds out in spring after insects emerge.
- Clean up your food garden and put the soil to bed. Your garden soil is degraded when left bare. One of the tragedies of industrial agriculture is unprotected soil. Not only is it not being fed, but it is washing and blowing away. To take care of your food growing beds do pull old plants and compost them. You do not want to encourage plant-specific insect pests and diseases to remain there. Compost those plants. Then, put down a nice layer of mulch/compost, shredded leaves, or plant a cover crop. Don’t leave it bare. What feeds soil is life and death.
- Plant, plant, plant, and plant. Fall is a wonderful time to plant trees and shrubs. As you plant, ask yourself these two questions:
- Is it food? Fill your land with food! It’s like printing money and one of the easiest ways to up your resilience. The US’s largest “crop” is grass and that’s ridiculous. It does not have to be food for you. It can be food for insects and wildlife too. To live and thrive, we NEED to support all life.
- Is it native to my area? Fill your landscape with plants that belong there. It really matters. An ecosystem was built over millions of years that is supported by native plants. If you want to take a deep dive into this, there are two great guides to this by Douglas Tallamy. Check out Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope.
Here are some more unusual items to consider that are edible: (I’m in zone 5, so check if they work for you)
- Hazelnut (shrub)
- Elderberry (shrub)
- Persimmon (tree)
- Aronia (shrub)
Don’t forget to plant food for wildlife as well. Oak trees are a standout choice. Overall, they support more species than any other tree. The Protect Oaks Ecosystem Study found that oaks can support 2,300 species of invertebrates, mammals, birds, and fungi! 326 of those species depend on oak completely. Oaks, like so much else, are declining. Planting an oak tree supports thousands of lives, including yours.
I hope you join me in supporting nature. Farming and gardening are hopeful, resilient, and powerful acts.