Leaving it

After Tropical Storm Irene stripped the color from so many trees around here back in August I was pretty pessimistically convinced that fall color would be lousy this year. And maybe that’s why it has seemed especially spectacular. There’s less of it to be sure, and it was more sudden and fast passing than usual (maybe because there’s less of it) but the reds seem deeper and the yellows and oranges more intensely glow-y.

New England fall is a gift. The leaves from our deciduous forests and gardens, colorful or not, are a huge bonus. I still can’t believe anyone would bag them up as garbage. I love the look of freshly fallen leaves carpeting the ground, and the renewable resource dust-to-dust cycle of nature really appeals to my inner lazy gardener. But of course there’s nothing lazy about leaving the leaves. Almost all of us who keep them from the landfill, at least pick them up and put them back down someplace else. It’s how we participate in the cycle.

At home I rake what few leaves fall in my yard straight into my garden beds. This gives critters like spiders, bumblebees and butterflies a place to overwinter. The plants don’t mind and aren’t smothered. (No oaks leaves fall in my yard – they have more of a tendency than any other to form an impenetrable mat.) Come spring, all I need to do is make sure the crowns of plants peek out. Other gardeners also rake extra leaves into piles. Gail says that by spring her pile of whole leaves is as soft and half decomposed as if it had been shredded – perfect for mulching her beds with. Still others mow the leaves. Leaves left in a thin enough layer that the grass still shows will provide nutrients for a healthier lawn. If the clippings are bagged, they may be used as nitrogen-rich mulch in the garden.

Here we do a bit of all three. Fred and Dan make a first pass over the property with mowers and graciously dump the clippings in the vegetable bed. They also blow the leaves off of the lawns and vacuum them up truckload by truckload. This year we realized that the vacuum did a good enough job of shredding the leaves that we saved several days and gallons of gas not passing them through the leaf shredder. The pile has already settled quite a bit and Gail and I have mulched all of the Display Garden beds to save weeding them later.

I know I ask this every year, but please refresh my memory – what do you do with your leaves?

(click on pictures for larger view)


4 thoughts on “Leaving it

  1. I love this post! You are right on. It makes me crazy to see leaves in plastic bags waiting to be carted off to the landfill. Leaves on the perennial and veggie beds serve as slow-release fertilizer, weed suppressors, and attractive mulch. We discussed this in a blog post last fall (at http://www.jmmds.com/2010/10/leave-no-ground-uncovered-tis-better-to-mulch-than-to-weed/, if you’re interested), and all who tried it last year reported healthier, better-draining, more worm-filled soil this year.

    I have lots of oak leaves, and I shred them with my mower before dumping onto my beds. Some people worry about critters bedding down in all those nice cozy leaves, but as you point out, that includes the beneficial bugs! I haven’t had a problem with bugs or disease since I started mulching with leaves–in fact, I think my healthier, happier plants are better able to withstand any assaults. If I start noticing a rodent population explosion, I might have to change tactics, but so far, so good.

    Thanks again for a great post!

    Jennifer, Thank you for reminding me (all of us) about the vole issue. I’m still in denial because so far, they haven’t bothered our gardens (knock wood). However, we have seen evidence in some of the shrub beds. I wonder, is it possible they might prefer the cover of bark mulch to leaf mulch?… -kris

  2. Mike uses a lot of the leaves to winter protect our potted roses. He constructs “cribs,” puts the potted roses in with pots close together, and covers them with leaves. The leaves do a very good job of keeping the roses dormant through the winter.
    This year he’s experimenting with a small compost bin, so some will go into that.

    Angie, Thank you for sharing Mike’s trick with the potted roses – I have one that comes inside (to a cool porch) but I bet it would be much happier blanketed in leaves. (Wonder if your pots are plastic or ceramic…?) -kris

  3. You know I’m all on board with leaf reclamation. If it’s the only source of humus you’ve got…. Although, I frequent Matt Mattus’s blog, Growing with Plants, and the tidiness of his fall clean up made me feel like some degenerate redneck hick letting my property go. Or maybe that’s just due to the fact I can clearly see how beat up the fence is.

    Susan, I know what you mean about the appeal of tidiness – I think it’s hardwired. Thankfully, it’s been pretty easy for me to retrain my eye to see the beauty in a little dishevelment (my own garden is a lot messier than the gardens here…) – and like Louise says in the comment below yours, clean-up is “a much more satisfying task in spring”! -kris

  4. In a word – nothing. We live in the country in rural Northern New York and the southwesterly winds seems to do a good job of blowing the leaves into the woods. Any that land in the vegetable garden or flower gardens stay until spring, when I nudge them out of the way of emerging plants. It they’ve collected on the grass over the winter, I rake them out of the way in the spring. A much more satisfying outdoor task in spring, when you’re eager to work outside, but can’t do a whole lot.

    Louise, We think alike! I’d much rather rake in the spring too. -kris

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