Growing up, gardening was a hated chore for Mark Stumpf-Allen, but, as he says, “If we didn’t garden, we didn’t eat.”
His perspective changed when he moved out and ate store-bought food more frequently. “I started to think that maybe all those hours in the garden were worth it.” From then on, nature, wildlife and growing healthy food became his passion. In the late ’90s, he turned pro, first as a landscaper, and, for the past 12 years, as compost programs coordinator with Edmonton’s waste services, where he studies the latest science to understand how compost interacts with soil.
Avenue asked him what people can do in the fall to make sure their yards and gardens flourish and help the environment in the spring.
In the past few years we’ve started moving beyond sustainability to regeneration, Stumpf-Allen says, from “doing no harm” to actually contributing to the environment. With grass, “it’s a matter of having a lawn (if it’s well taken care of) that builds healthy soil beneath it, traps rainwater, sequesters carbon and provides oxygen. Grass clippings that have built up over the summer are a great source of carbon. And you can add to it by mulching leaves into the lawn. To keep it healthy, you want it about one-and-a-half centimeters thick. Don’t overuse chemical fertilizers like nitrogen, or over-water, or it will be too thick and your lawn will be like a sponge.”
As night time temperatures start dropping to single digits, gradually lower your lawnmower blade (never bag the clippings). This will leave your lawn better insulated with denser carbons, better able to resist fluctuating temperatures in the wintertime, “and you won’t have to rake anything in the spring.”
Leaving an organic layer applies to gardens as well, for insulation and for the microbes and bugs that help the decomposition process.
“Leave your stems sticking up out of the snow to add some winter compost and to give a place for beneficial insects over winter. You want microbes in the soil under the snow, because they’ll still be active down there, and they need food. And when the snow melts in the springtime, you don’t want the sun and the wind to be dissipating and destroying your topsoil because you’ll have an erosion problem later. Living roots are how nature builds soil, and the more alive your soil is, the more your soil will be able to digest.”
You may be concerned that a yard covered in decomposing material is visually unappealing, but it’s really embracing the cycle of the season — everything goes a bit brown in the fall. “I don’t find it looks ugly. It’s going to be a little bit browner than it would ordinarily be, but I know that in spring, it’s going to green up a lot sooner.”
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This article appears in the August 2019 issue of Avenue Edmonton.