Halloween and Thanksgiving come with two big benefits: there’s food and family stuff going on, and there are decorations. It’s the decorations I’ll focus on. During the harvest seasons, take a drive around suburbia. Try parking the car and walking blocks in a cloverleaf pattern. As you walk or drive, keep an eye out for decorations.
Scarecrows and straw bales
Somewhere there may be a little house with a stuffed scarecrow sitting on a straw bale – and a postage stamp yard. Every year I score loose straw and old bales of straw from the people who like to use them as decoration. Sometimes they’re done with them after Halloween, sometimes the owners want to keep them until Thanksgiving. They’re not usually suitable for animal bedding, but they make excellent mulch. Turns out, people plant stuff in them, too, as biodegradable planters. Straw and hay typically goes up in price as autumn progresses, although it’s not terribly expensive on a small scale, so collecting it in October or November for free and covering it with a tarp can be a good way to get ahead of the curve and save a few bucks. Be brave, knock on a door, leave a note, and see if the owner will give you a call when they’re done with their decorations. If you’re shy or never heard back, you can also cruise around early on trash day to see if the straw made it onto the curb.
Got poultry or goats? A compost heap? As you drive or walk around neighborhoods, check out people’s doors and porches and windows. Keep an eye out for the jack o’ lanterns, pumpkins, gourds, and multi-colored corn cobs some like to use as decoration.
Corn can’t go in the compost heap, but if you’re inclined, when the neighbors are done with it in their homes, it can be hung in the nearby woods for squirrels or other wildlife. If there is livestock around, it is guaranteed to be willing to munch corn on the cob. Most livestock would appreciate it if the cobs are soaked for a day or ground before they’re tossed into the feed pan. Ducks will likely want their corn cracked for them.
The small, colorful, warty melons and gourds Americans rarely consume make great feed for chickens and goats, and will usually hold for weeks on end. If you happen to see somebody picking them up, introduce yourself at the market, ask the buyer what they intend to do with them when they’ve finished their life as decorations. See if he or she will give you a call. Grocers may also be willing to cut a deal on other past-prime produce.
Jack o’ lanterns almost always end up in the trash November 1st. They’ve already lost most of their flesh, but chickens can make a fine meal off what remains on the rind. Goats are also regularly willing to nibble the remaining fruit or gnaw on the entire rind.
While wandering around the neighborhood, take some detours. Check out the nearest parks, the edges of roadways, and any deep ditches nearby. If there is a community-owned patch or woods or government property that is covered in trees, wander through them as well. Just make sure it’s not private property.
The autumn season is ideal for checking out game signs. Deer will be entering ruts and leaving rubs. Baby bunnies gone fat with summer will be scurrying around trying to get fatter. Squirrels will be extremely active searching out nuts and grains to add to their caches. Moving deeper into the fall season, an increase in moisture and a decrease in ground-level foliage can make animal tracks easier to pick out. There are seasonal and annual shifts in habits, but if you can find the areas of concentration, barring major disturbances, those areas will be good for game in other seasons and years.
Fruits and nuts
At the moment it isn’t terribly kosher to wander around county or state parks pocketing acorns and walnuts and the odd pecan, but autumn is nut season in North America. Knowing where those nut trees are ahead of time might make a difference in a widespread disaster. Too, in some there may very well be enough acorns to share with the wildlife, so if living like the natives is part of the goal, collecting a few and practicing the various ways to prepare them might not be a bad idea. Apples and other fruit end up in parks, naturally or because people gnaw and then pitch the cores. Get a book and try to identify paw-paw or other edible native tree and shrub fruits and immigrants. Keep an eye out for red-berry sumacs – they’re typically the last berry available at the end of winter and can be made into a refreshing lemony drink.
Edible cattails are most recognizable once they’ve gone brown and wooly. In some places, that’s as early as July, but in some regions, there are two or even three cattail seasons. Because cattail can resemble poisonous ditch companions and pond companions early in spring, marking them in autumn is a good idea. Their rhizomes will also be at their fullest right before heavy frosts become a nightly event, so early autumn is a good time to collect them. Knowing what they are will allow you to take advantage of the early spring shoots and the early summer flower heads the next year.
If they’re legal in your area, the identifiable stage also makes it easy to be absolutely for-sure they’re not European phragmites, and cattails can be grabbed, hauled off, and dropped in another ditch that’s sometimes wet, sometimes underwater, sometimes muddy, sometimes dry – they’re pretty adaptable, although they’ll do better as transplants if it’s muddy or watery during the replanting. They’ll spread pretty voraciously, but in flood-and-drain ditches, other edibles like milk flower and foxtail help keep them in check.
Autumn storms and early freezes start thinning out the weak trees that escaped summer wind storms. Downed trees in yards tends to be a nearly year-round experience, but it’s a lot more pleasant to be hauling chunks of timber in 45-65 degrees than in July or February. Craigslist and similar sites can be a way to really build up a wall of fuel wood quickly, even if it does have to season.
Autumn is the time when dedicated homeowners head out to trim back their trees. In some places, this results in special pick-ups by the trash men. In some, trips to the dump. In others, big burn piles. And that, friends, is all just needless waste. As you indulge in your new habit of hiking all over the neighborhood, keep an eye out for somebody who is chopping and stuffing into trash cans or lopping and making piles. For fireplace owners without many trees of their own, this is kindling that doesn’t have to be split. For those who intend to use a rocket stove and have some storage space, this is fuel wood that doesn’t have to be trimmed as much.
For others, this could very well be future mulch. If you don’t already have one, chipper-shredders or mulchers can be had for as little as $250 for semi-decent, small, lightweight versions that are battery powered and can be dragged around. If there is a “lending tool shed” in the area, it might be worth checking out for one. County co-ops and county extension offices may also have information about rentals and about gardening “you help, I help” programs, or about bulletin boards where notices can be posted, offering hauling and finding labor for the use of a chipper-shredder, splitting the produce. Some trees, like oaks and walnuts, aren’t suitable for all gardens, but most fruit trees, pines, and other hardwoods are fine.
Should the opportunity arise, apple, plum, and cherry limbs are awesome additions to a smoker or grill, as are hickory and pecan limbs.
Hedges could really be trimmed just about any time, but some choose to knock it out in the autumn when they’re pruning trees or so the yard looks pretty for the holidays. For homeowners with fences that could use a little help at the bottoms, holly or berry bramble cuttings are a goldmine. The canes and thorny-leaved branches can be laid around the bottom edges of fences, bundled against the fences if necessary, and goats, birds, dogs, and wildlife are less inclined to push their way underneath. Like lopped-off limbs, they can be run through a chipper-shredder and turned into mulch. Berry brambles, especially raspberry, are also good in the smoker.
Leaves can be a pain in the butt for people who like pretty lawns, but they’re another goldmine waiting to be plundered for gardeners. Oak and walnut leaves and pine needles in concentration are only good for plants that can handle acidic conditions, but they’re great for boosting those for blueberries.
There are a couple of options for other leaf types. Strawberries can be bedded down for winter using leaves – and pine needles are okay for that task. The leaves can be left whole and dumped in rings around trees where it would be nice to develop more soil. Leaves can be used to cover over conventional gardening spaces, preventing the winter’s rains from compacting the soil and limiting soil and fertilizer runoff from winter rain and snow.
Autumn is awesome. There’s the opportunity for family connections, plus it’s conducive to sliding into a sweater and meandering around the woods and the neighborhood taking in the color and air. Paying a little extra attention and wandering beyond the usual paths may give you ways to improve gardens or stock up on fuels, in return for just a little labor. At the very least, adding a stroll to the weekly routine can help make you more aware of the rhythms of the community.