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Berkshire Garden Style: A Plea to Homeowners

Jenna O'brien author | Amanda Giracca editor

Gaura spicing up some containers while the dead branches from pruning a Contorted Hazel

give this arrangement form, dynamism, and appeal.

I found a pile of weeds on my land recently. Some gardener had done some work at a nearby property, and at the end of the day, left with a load of weeds and other organic refuse, found a nice little meadow patch on my property and dumped it. They dumped their load among other weedy-seeming plants along the roadside and just below my fence, a site that was on the verge of cultivated/not-cultivated. Regardless of whether the dumpsite seemed like someone’s cultivated property or “just” the roadside, to me, the dumping is obviously wrong. But not everyone sees things like I do. So, I want to dedicate this blog post to talking about why this act was extremely irresponsible.

The offending pile, just up from my driveway and below my fence.

For starters, this wasn’t just any pile of weeds. It mostly consisted of the vigorous and invasive Canada Thistle. At its bud stage, nonetheless. Meaning, as a plant that is adapted to set seed even after it has been pulled, it would have survived, flowered, gone to seed and spread. This very wet weather we’ve been having would have helped their survival rate, the piled up roots protected, kept moist, and able to re-root themselves. If I hadn’t caught them and dealt with them, this whole neighborhood could have been subsumed by Canada Thistle at this time next year.

Obviously, the use of my property as a dumping ground for an invasive weed is infuriating enough. Living on a dirt road adjacent to a state forest, I see this kind of dumping quite a lot, and it really perplexes me. There is simply no reason to be hauling refuse away from properties in rural areas, like my Becket neighborhood, where some corner can easily be dedicated as a refuse area. I have a plea for homeowners in Berkshire County: please don’t haul – or have your gardener haul – refuse off your property! It’s simply bad land management.

I don’t know from whose property the Thistle came, but I have a scenario in mind: a homeowner realized their garden weeds had become overgrown, and they called a gardener to come do a quick cleanup, probably a one-off. The gardener, maybe young, maybe inexperienced, maybe not charging much for their labor and just glad to have a job, wasn’t given any specific place to dump the weeds. At the end of the day, tired and ready to be done and enjoy the July 4th holiday, they did what was easiest and dumped the load. Maybe they thought, “It’s compostable. It’ll break down.” The gardener who dumped it is to blame, but just as much, the homeowner who hired the gardener is to blame. (If indeed that’s how this scenario went.)

Dealing with refuse – weeds, clippings, deadheads, thinned plants, bug-eaten leaves, etc. – appropriately is an important tenet of Berkshire Garden Style. Proper refuse removal is good land management. If we want to define land management, it’s taking care of not just your own land, but of all land. It’s having good practices always: being gentle in your cultivation techniques, being aware of the surrounding landscape, and not spreading pests.

Another important point, supportive of this tenet, is that we have the luxury of space in the Berkshires. Many properties can afford to dedicate a sliver of it for garden waste management. This isn’t an extra – it is a key piece of having a garden. Garden waste management is part of the garden. A garden cannot exist without it!

The luxury of living in the Berkshires often means having a diversity of spaces.

The Potting Shed Garden is a garden we tend and was featured last summer. This garden shines and thrives in “another man’s trash”, the greenhouse foundation of the old Wheatleigh estate.

So, homeowners – if you’re going to hire a gardener, one of the first conversations you should have is about where on your property your gardener can dispose of refuse. There’s the civility of not dumping elsewhere, the importance of not spreading weed seeds, bugs, disease, and other pests.

Caring for your own garden waste also creates an ecologically-sound closed system. If you’re managing your weeds properly – i.e., not letting them go to seed before they’re pulled – then fresh, green leaf matter, because of its high water content, decomposes rapidly and, when mixed with brown material such as fall leaves, you’re left with this dark, rich soil. Then all you have to worry about is how to use that wonderful material! A healthy garden produces tons of biomass, and biomass is good! If I’m able to, I create separate refuse piles: one for fresh leaves and plant material that have a high water content (I call this the “green pile”), one for fall leaves (the “brown pile”), one for woody material, such as fallen peaches or pruning trimmings. Stones and gravel have their own places.

The refuse site doesn’t HAVE to be discreet…a burnpile to go up in flames in winter.

I think of those stickers I’ve seen on garbage cans, with a photo of Earth from space and the slogan: “Remember, when you throw it away there is no ‘away.’” True, garden refuse isn’t plastic wrappers, but the message still applies. Weeds are waste, and excess waste reveals a kind of wealth that we ought to handle responsibly.

We can get creative with how we manage waste. For example, you can burn woody material from a pruning job in a campfire or in one of those little patio fireplaces. You can take a page from permaculture and use the chop and drop method, leaving your clippings beneath the tree or plant your trimming as mulch. If you’re trimming frequently and in small amounts, you won’t be left with piles to deal with, just little bits that can decompose on their own right there.

Woodchips serving as mulch. I was thrilled to see these Goldenseal plants thriving in a local entrance garden

on a recent garden tour put on by the Becket Arts Center. While my gardens get a more refined mulch,

we do use woodchips to build soil and establish new planting spaces.

As for smaller properties where perhaps space really is so limited there’s absolutely no place to dump, here’s an idea: talk to your neighbors. Find a neighbor who does have enough space and might be willing to sacrifice a sliver of land to use as a neighborhood refuse site; they could charge a fee for others to dispose of refuse properly. That way, any potential pests are still in the same neighborhood. Not only would this create an appropriate and easy way to dispose of waste, it helps shift our mentality away from “my property” and “their property,” reminding us that our yard and our neighbor’s yard are part of the same ecosystem. (Stay tuned! An upcoming blog post will delve into more creative ways for dealing with garden waste.)

You may be wondering: What if there’s a noxious weed in my garden? How can I responsibly handle this situation? Weeds are plants and plants have unique distinguishing characteristics that can be attributed to their habit/behavior/success/survival. The first step is identifying the plants, then coming up with an appropriate plan. For example, some plants can be smothered; for others, you may need appropriately timed and selective application of herbicide done by a specialist. There are companies that specialize in handling certain plants, such as Native Habitat Restoration.

As for the pile of Thistle: I picked it up during a downpour on July 4, the day I came across it. I was headed up the hill on a family dog walk. It is now in a wheelbarrow under a tarp in the shed, rotting. I’ll uncover it soon to dry it out, then toss it on the firepit. I considered filling a heavy duty jumbo trash bag and just bringing it to the dump. But it feels wrong to me to put organic matter in the trash. So the infamous pile is still with me, for now.

One of my favorites right now: Cimicifuga inflorescenses and decay, refuse and refugia.

Beauty and decay, refuse and refugia.

Finally, if a property really is too small, and if there are no neighbors able or willing to sacrifice a bit of property for neighborhood plant waste, there are places who will take it, sometimes for a fee, sometimes not:

  • Here is a list compiled by Berkshire Zero Waste of local companies who will manage food waste and other compostables, including yard waste. Some even do curbside pickup!

  • For brush, logs, and leaves, check out Sheffield Farm Products.

  • Check your town website. Sometimes transfer stations, such as in Pittsfield, take yard waste. Pittsfield has a deal with Casella Waste Systems, who use organic waste to create soil products. Lenox takes yard waste for composting at the Lenox Wastewater Treatment Plant, 239 Crystal Street, on Saturdays throughout the summer.

A note on our photo selections featured in this piece: nearly all of these landscapes are enhanced by some form of organic “waste” materials. At risk of stating the obvious, gardens are more than just plants without weeds. A garden is the gardeners and it’s the creatures that live in and from the garden. It is the rotten weeds and fallen leaves that become the soil that supports the life that supports the garden beauty. It is the living trees that frame a view and the fallen trees that build our structures. Wood chips decay into a rich loam, giving the soil structure and providing a medium for our fungal friends to do their part. The waste of the garden is not waste at all.

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