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The Beauty in Decay

Submitted by Barbara Hockabout, 
Lodestar Gardens Learning Center, Concho, AZ

The edges of seasons are fascinating! This is the time of year when you peer into the withered, colorless mangle of last year’s plant to discover the almost imperceptible new green leaf emerging from a decayed stalk or stem, when you brush away the protective layer of dried leaves, wood chips or pine needles to find once again the irrepressible seedling struggling to meet the sun. The new life would not be possible without the decayed organic remnants of last year’s glory. Nature is sustained by a cycle of decay, and we do well when we honor it. Most of us have heard about composting, the process of breaking down organic matter into rich soil amendments for new growth, but here are three other very beneficial ideas that utilize the process of decay to improve your home and garden life.

Cultivate Perennial Plants

In a culture preoccupied with appearances, we tend to sweep away the old and deny the invaluable role decay plays in the lifecycle. There is a frenzy in the spring to clean all corners and sweep away the debris, however, last year’s organic matter may be the very nursery in which healthy plants thrive. There is a tendency to hurriedly transplant annuals purchased from stores and grown many miles from our homes. This desire to jump start summer is understandable as we have such a short growing season, however, native and/or perennial plants are more durable and sustainable than imported annuals. Perennials are the green shoots that appear year after year out of the rubble of winter. Explore the areas around your home with a plant identification book in hand so as to determine which plants will do best all by themselves in your yard. We recommend the following resources: Native Plants for High Elevation Western Gardens—Jan Busco & Nancy R. Morin; Wild Plants and Native Peoples of the Four Corners—William W. Dunmire and Gail D. Tierney has great plant photos and cultural information.

Create a Wild Spot

In permaculture there is great reverence for the Edge, the fringe where two different characters of land meet—a riparian, for instance. Some of us who live in the White Mountains live at the edge of a forest and have access to the great diversity of life forms, activity, and variety of textures, colors, and sounds that reside there. Some of us live on the edge of rock spines, swales, and arroyos that host plant, insect and reptile diversity. Those of us who live in town on a lot in a neighborhood can also create an Edge in our back or front yards. Simply allow a spot in your yard to grow naturally—a wild spot—in the manner of designated wildlife habitat areas. See what happens. What does the space attract? Which birds? Animals? What native plants grow? What weeds? Children see these things best, closest to the ground and full of natural curiosity as they are. They will be fascinated to explore a wild spot. Our two-year-old grandson’s favorite spot in his backyard is the space under the largest tree, where branches offer shade to many things including his imagination; he hides from the world for a while. A wild spot in your yard may foster future science projects, forts, and memories for a life time.

Experiment with Hugelkultur

The Permaculture Research Institute offers a concise explanation of a hugelkultur: Used for centuries in Eastern Europe and Germany, hugelkultur (in German hugelkultur translates roughly as “mound culture”) is a gardening and farming technique whereby woody debris (fallen branches and/or logs) are used as a resource.

Often employed in permaculture systems, hugelkultur allows gardeners and farmers to mimic the nutrient cycling found in a natural woodland to realize several benefits. Woody debris (and other detritus) that falls to the forest floor can readily become sponge like, soaking up rainfall and releasing it slowly into the surrounding soil, thus making this moisture available to nearby plants.

Hugelkultur garden beds (and hugelkultur ditches and swales) use the same principle to: help retain moisture on site, build soil fertility, improve drainage, use woody debris that is unsuitable for other use.

At Lodestar, we are experimenting with hugelkultur techniques within a more traditional garden design with a drip system. While water retentive wood from such trees as aspens, cottonwoods, willows, redwood, sycamore, and cedar is generally recommended as the foundation of a hugelkulture mound, at Lodestar we are experimenting with the trees in our high desert area—juniper, cedar, shaggy & alligator pines. We are still learning how to use hugelkultur methods, but after one season we can safely say that the method is successful in retaining moisture and improving fertility. We recommend you research hugelkulture online sites such as for an in-depth description and step by step instructions how to build a hugelkultur mound in your yard.

Most of us give lip service that nature serves as a teacher to humans; intellectually we agree the changing seasons are metaphors for our human experience. But how many of us really do more than jog or stroll through Nature, trim or prune it? How many of us celebrate the seasons beyond joining in on holidays or saving our vacation time for summer activities? And for that matter, how many of us really appreciate the essential role decay plays in our daily lives. How often do we honor that which made it possible for us to be here in the first place? Perhaps if we celebrate the life cycle process in our homes and gardens, we will have a greater appreciation for the elders who are the mature and aging plants in our home garden; their presence is indispensable to cultivating the wisdom in the next flowering generation.

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