Messy is beautiful so let's skip the fall cleanup

Messy is Beautiful – Why You Should Skip the Fall Cleanup

In this episode, we’re going to look at why messy is beautiful and why you should skip the fall cleanup. Don’t rake up the leaves, don’t cut down the dead flower stalks, and leave the branches where they fall. While this might seem crazy you can skip the fall cleanup. Or at least do less. The result will be more abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.


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When fall comes most people start putting the garden to bed. Leaves get raked up and removed, branches are tossed into the yard waste bin or added to the burn pile, and spent flower stalks and stems get cut down to the ground.

The result is cleared ground that is often left exposed to the winter rains and snow.

Now when the rains fall they hit the ground compacting it and can wash away your topsoil. On top of that, there is nowhere for wildlife to shelter. So they either move on or die.

All this means your land is less abundant—with less wildlife and it will be less productive for you and your family.

Plus, it all just takes time and energy.

So why do we go through all the effort to remove leaves, branches, and dead stems and flowers?

One reason is to make a clear area for planting veggies when the weather warms up in the spring. And in garden beds that can make sense. But there is a way around this that we will talk about later.

But a big reason people do all this cleanup in the fall is that all those leaves, branches, and dead stems and flowers just look messy.

And messy isn’t what you want. Or is it?

What if I told you that messy is beautiful. And when you skip the fall cleanup you’re actually creating something beautiful.

You’re creating a landscape that is full of abundance for people, plants, and wildlife. You’re helping to heal the living world.

And there are strategies you can use to strike a balance between a full cleanup and leaving everything alone.

Let’s dive into some strategies you can use to build abundance by skipping the fall cleanup.

And if you like what you hear today, then please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever else you listen. Your review will help more people find us.

People like you, who want to bring these skills home, to enjoy wildlife, grow more food, and help heal our living world.

Okay, let’s get started.

Episode Resources:

Why Messy is Beautiful – Looking at the Living World

Messy is beautiful -- at least in the living world. So let's skip the fall clean up.

No one cleans up this forest yet it’s still beautiful. So is messy beautiful? This picture was taken in the Olympic National Park on a winter day. I think it’s beautiful.

So is messy beautiful? Well, it really depends on what you think of as messy and what you see as beautiful.

Let me ask you this—when you visit a national park or other protected areas what do you see?

Are those old-growth forests, prairies, shorelines, and other areas messy?

No one is cleaning those areas up but most of us still find them beautiful. So why is that?

Why do people find the living world to be beautiful yet spend so much time trying to control their land?

One reason comes down to expectations—both yours and the people around you. Many places have rules and laws that require a certain level of cleanup.

The lawn has to be mowed and the property maintained. Often the result is a big green lawn with a couple of spotlighted trees and a few shrubs surrounded by beauty bark. Maybe a few flowers are added in.

Any fallen leaf, branch, or dead stem is quickly cleared away. I’ve even seen people taking leaf blowers to clear everything away from the ground between their shrubs and trees. Of course, this also blows away a ton of topsoil.

But this is the classic suburban look here in the United States.

So is that classic suburban look beautiful? I don’t think so—instead, I think this look is more about showing that you are maintaining your property. That you’re taking care of it—with both your time and money.

It’s expected that people who are good neighbors will maintain their properties.

But when you go out to national parks or other protected areas you might expect the trails to be maintained but you don’t expect the forests or other areas to be cleaned up like a suburban lot or city park.

So how do you strike a balance where you show your neighbors that you’re maintaining your property but also create space for the beauty of the living world?

Skip the Fall Cleanup and Make Messy Beautiful

Explore a food forest so you can start your own

Our front food forest is very different from a lawn. But everyone that sees it finds it to be very beautiful.

No one cleans up the leaves or branches that fall in a forest. And no one goes around clearing the dead stems and flowers from these areas.

Except if they fall across a trail.

And you can take a similar approach at your own place.

When the leaves fall around your trees and shrubs just leave them where they fall. Except if they fall on your sidewalks, driveways, or other similar places.

And if you have paths between your growing areas you can cut back the dead stems and flowers next to the paths. But leave the ones alone that are away from where you walk.

The same goes for branches that fall to the ground. If they’re in your growing areas just let them be. But if they fall across your paths or other walking areas then move those.

Wild Tip:

And you can cut up larger branches and just leave the pieces on the ground around your trees and shrubs. You can also add the stems and leaves you cleared from your paths to your growing areas instead of hauling them away.

This way your paths, sidewalks, driveways, and other similar areas will all stay cleared and well maintained.

But the leaves, stems, old flowers, and branches can all help cultivate abundance in your growing areas.

You’re striking a balance between healing the living world and meeting the expectation that you’re maintaining your property.

And while it may look a bit messy that messy is beautiful. It’s beautiful because it’s supporting wildlife, building and protecting your soil, and it also just looks beautiful.

Wild Tip:

Even in your vegetable garden, you can just chop-and-drop your old veggies and even leave old stems standing. I often leave tall orach stems where they stand like little snags. All this chop-and-drop material returns nutrients to the garden soil and helps to protect it from the fall and winter rains. You can easily pull or push it aside in the spring to make room for your new veggies.

When you skip the fall cleanup you might be surprised how many colors and textures remain through the year. We just love spotting white snowberries mixed with red rose hips along with all the various colors of stems and branches.

Plus, by leaving the leaves, stems, and branches we get to see birds looking for seeds and other things to eat.

Our land isn’t bare in the winter—instead, it’s filled with life despite the cold. And that’s because we embraced the idea that messy is beautiful.

And since the paths and other walking areas are kept cleared the land still looks maintained which keeps neighbors happy.

Why You Should Skip the Fall Cleanup

Messy is beautiful so let's take a step back, slow down and embrace it.

The paths are kept clear in this wetland but otherwise it’s left alone. And I just find all the old stems and flower heads to be so beautiful. This is a picture of the Lewes Railway Land Nature Reserve in Lewes, England.

I hope you will take a moment to visit the show notes for this episode. I’ve made sure to include some pictures that highlight how beautiful messy can be.

And really it isn’t messy at all—messy tends to imply that a place isn’t being maintained or taken care of. But the opposite is true of the living world that we all find so beautiful.

People may not be actively maintaining many of these so-called natural areas, but the wildlife and natural processes are.

All those leaves, stems, and branches that fall to the ground are quickly decomposed by fungi, bacteria, and other soil life. This in turn creates a rich layer of duff and topsoil that supports trees, shrubs, and other plants.

Plus it provides a moist home for salamanders, frogs, and so much more. Lots of caterpillars and even ladybugs overwinter under fallen leaves, branches, and logs.

Old standing stems and flowers provide winter homes for native bees and other wildlife.

And seed heads, old berries, nuts, and old fruit that stay on the tree, shrub, or stalk all provide winter food for birds and other wildlife.

Plus, when you skip the fall cleanup you also save yourself a lot of time and energy.

And to me, it just looks beautiful.

Right before I wrote this episode, my wife and I were looking outside chatting about the rain. In the past we always found fall and winter in western Washington to be a bit depressing—just grey and wet.

But as our property has transformed through our efforts we’ve both started to find beauty despite the rain and grey skies. We always see birds flitting about our place, and there is always something new to see.

The land is alive with abundance and it’s so beautiful to see.

So skip the fall cleanup and help cultivate abundance where you live because messy is beautiful.

And stay tuned for our next episode where we will look at how you can find material for mulch and critter homes. And don’t forget to check out the show notes for more links and resources related to this episode.

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Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.