The Last Dance of the Garden Year

This giant pile of leaves will be compost by next summer. Having raked and  piled them, I don’t need to do much more besides rearrange the heap after it settles a bit, and (most important) poke several holes right through it once the leaves start to decompose and pack down. The holes will allow air and water into the middle of the pile, to keep the breakdown process going.

Damp leaves are much easier to handle than dry ones, which fly around and slither down the pile. Raking and leaf management are much easier after a rain. When you build the heap, sprinkle a little soil or finished compost between layers of leaves, which should be from six inches to one foot thick.

My leaves come from the trees I am always complaining about in this blog — three big Norway maples, one giant red maple (just over the fence in my neighbour’s yard), a weeping birch and a tree of heaven (or, as I think of it, tree from hell). During the gardening year, deadheads, old stalks and other debris of the perennial border and vegetable patch go into the heap, as well as a comparatively minute amount of vegetable kitchen scraps. One might think, looking at this leaf pile, and at the crumbly, black compost that I distribute around the garden every spring, that trees are the thing to have if you want compost. It is true that leaf-based compost is free of weed seeds and evil root fragments that can propagate weeds to spots that don’t have them. But you have to remember that trees suck both water and nutrients from the soil, so if you don’t have trees you don’t need as much compost or anything else to feed your gardens. Nature’s budget usually balances.

Which is why some people would argue that you really don’t need to rake leaves at all. If you leave them alone, they will eventually break down and release their nutrients, as they do in forests. No need to rake, pile or distribute compost. This lazy approach is preferable to stuffing leaves into orange plastic bags and putting them out for garbage collection, a practice that does mess with the natural nutrient budget. Whatever was extracted from your soil to grow those leaves will need to be replenished somehow, to grow lawn or petunias or tomatoes next summer. The fertilizer bag is the consequence of the leaf bag.

Free compost aside, there are other benefits to leaf-raking, similar to those of edging (see Setting the Edge, Oct. 25). A few brightly-coloured leaves decorate the garden. Loads of brown leaves make it look sad and neglected, and are apt to smother plants or cause rot. Raking reveals the edges between beds and lawns, an instantaneous visual improvement. Like edging, it can induce a meditative state. There is an artfulness to it as well — you have to develop a repertoire of techniques to tease leaves out from perennial beds without damage, move them down narrow garden paths, and herd huge masses of them to their final resting place. Big piles of leaves acquire a nearly liquid quality and can be moved quite quickly with authoritative strokes of the rake. (Don’t even think of using a leaf-blower, an abomination of noise and fossil fuel consumption).

Finally, raking leaves is good exercise for the upper body. It’s a kind of dance — the last tango of the garden year.

 

Almost finished compost

 

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