When Every Leaf's a Flower
On a walk the other day I noticed a leaf fallen to the ground. Looking up and all around, leaves where turning, falling down. The fall has come.
In much of North America, autumn is a beautiful time of the year. For me, it is the most beautiful and pleasurable. After the oppressive heat of summer, temperatures moderate, bringing out the best in both people and plants. A few weeks into cooling temperatures, winds die back and seasonal rains return. We can almost hear the collect sigh of relief the landscape utters. As the weather cools, the roses bloom.
The final flush of blooms emerge, one last show before winter. I think this last display is the most brilliant when summer's plants join the fall bloomers. The display builds until the garden reaches an absolute riot of color and excess. While the blooms still linger, chlorophyll begins to depart the leaves, the color beneath shines through. “Autumn is the second spring when every leaf is a flower” (Albert Camus).
To some, however, fall is a the time that brings the dreaded chore of raking the leaves. Yes, they might admit, the foliage looks splendid, in a bah humbug sort of way. What they are thinking about, though, is all the raking they'll soon be doing. As the sun lowers on the horizon, with a little planning and recycling, the gathering up of the leaves may be viewed in a different light.
If one has read many gardening books, especially English gardening books, one becomes acquainted with a particular type of compost called leaf mold. It seem every British gardener, and certainly, every organic gardener, swears by it. Not being British, but being of the organic persuasion, I have come to learn of the merits of leaves and leaf mold. Leaf mold, and even just recycling chopped leaves, feeds and blankets the beds over winter preparing the way for a brilliant spring season.
In various regions of the country that are not as foliage challenged as the Texas Panhandle, an abundance of leaves fall each autumn. So much so that people bag them and set them in the streets to be hauled away. It is something that continually astounds me, having such an abundance of leaves and their generosity in giving away the raw resource that becomes miracle compost leaf mold. Unfortunately, most of the leaves uselessly end up in landfills, creating additional problems, instead of acting as a solution.
I realize, of course, that people generally consider leaves as something to be gotten rid. Rather than valuing and turning leaves back into compost and recycled into the landscape, they are discarding in landfills. There are, however, easy ways to turn the leaves into compost that require very little more work then bagging them up and setting the bag on the curb for pick up.
Trees grow either big tough leaves, or small thin leaves or somewhere in between. They will all eventually decompose, the smaller and thinner the leaf composting the quickest. Small leaves that grow on locust and cedar elm trees make great mulch in flower beds just as they fall – no additional work needed. I try to have any pansies or other dirt work completed before they fall, usually by the last week in October. There is literally, no work involved with leaves of this sort. If anyone is considering planting a tree this fall, for less fall cleanup, trees with small leaves is a good, low maintenance purchase.
Medium sized and big leaves from mulberries, oaks and sycamores need more work. They can mat down and become water impermeable, smothering plants beneath them, taking much more time to decompose. Instead of raking them up and bagging, rake the fallen leaves into the lawn and with a mulching mower, mow the area. Leaves mulch mowed in this manner is one of the best amendments and mulches for the lawn. The leaves are sent to ground level with the action of the mulching mower. The decomposition process begins when the chopped leaves make contact with soil microbes, taking a few months to complete during the colder weather. This layer of mulch moderates soil temperature and slows evaporation providing yet another benefit before turning into plant nutrients.
If you have layers of leaves adding up to a foot or more, you might consider mowing the leaves and catching the chopped up foliage. After this, you have a few choices. Either bag the chopped leaves or dump them into a new compost area and let them turn into valuable leaf mold.
Slightly moist, chopped leaves decompose very nicely. If the leaves are tinder dry, add water as one would a compost pile: to the consistency of a squeezed sponge – slightly moist, not soggy. Fill a plastic trash bag with chopped leaves, tie up the bag and poke a few holes in the bag. Place the bags in a corner of the landscape and let them naturally decompose, usually 6-8 months or sooner. Turn the bags every few weeks, much like you would turn your compost pile. By summer, or fall, leaf mold should be yours.
To compost the chopped leaves, designate a sunny area as the leaf mold compost pile. Screen the area with chicken wire to keep the leaves from blowing away. Again, moistening the leaves might be necessary. In our climate, we need not worry about them becoming too wet. Turn the leaves and moisten again, if necessary, about once a month.
If mulch is needed in your beds and borders, instead of turning into leaf mold, distribute the chopped leaves where needed. It will decompose in situ, adding nutrients to the soil and improving drainage. Have you walked along a forest floor? Spongy and porous, the life of the forest continues from year to year with no one fretting over fertilizers. Roots take up the nutrients in the soil, feeding and nurturing the plant during the growing season. In autumn, the leaves fall to the ground and decompose. Eventually the nutrients seep down to the root zone in one beautiful and efficient cycle.
After 5 or so years of adding the chopped leaves to borders, you will be amazed how easily the soil can be worked.
Are you working a new bed this fall or winter? Fresh fallen leaves, chopped and captured with a mower can be worked into the soil with much success. Add as much as your can – 6 - 12 inches into the top 8-10 inches of soil is a good start. It may seem like a lot, but there is a lot of air and water in the leaves. The organic matter adds not just nutrients, but improves drainage in either sandy or clay soil.
Leaves should never be removed from the home site, but if you can get some from your neighbors, you got a deal (if herbicide and pesticide free)! Leaves are a valuable commodity. Once you begin to recycle them into your landscape, you'll wish you had more.
Angie Hanna, November 7, 2014