fallen leaves

Garden Cleanup: Less is Better?

I’ve had this post in my drafts file since fall (aka “autumn”) but just had to write posts about other things first. Books, more books, and book cover images. After all that stuff, it’s about time for a garden-related post. So here it is.

I like the look of a tidy, tended garden. Leaves raked, edges crisp, dead stems and stalks cut down to bristly little stubs. It has that “been there, done that” look at the end of a growing season. Now it’s resting, waiting for spring, when sprouts will sprout, buds will bloom, and the gardener will bustle about dispensing magic dust and fresh compost.

I also like raking leaves, piling them up and loading them into a wheelbarrow for a short trip to the compost heap, where they’ll eventually become compost. In spring, I load compost into the wheelbarrow for a short trip back to the perennial beds where the leaves landed after falling off their trees.

Does anyone detect a wee bit of absurdity in that last paragraph? Raking up leaves, carting them several yards/metres and several months later — when they’ve decomposed — lugging them back to the very same spot.

Maybe it’s better to let them rot in place. That’s good enough for Mother Nature, after all. You don’t see her busting her butt with wheelbarrows. (But then, she has all the winds of heaven at her service.)

This past autumn, I thought I would try something different. I raked leaves off paths and pavements, but let most of them lie where they landed on beds and lawn areas. I didn’t leave as many on grass as in the perennial beds, and I made sure there were no thick, smothering leaf mats anywhere.

Dead leaves and new green shoots

The idea is that earthworms will drag those leaves underground and… do whatever they do with them. Eat them, I guess, and poop out the remains in the form of worm castings, churning up the dirt in the process.

I’ve also resisted the urge to cut down all the withered perennial stalks, even after they’ve lost their charm and just look dead. I’ve read that they provide cover and feeding opportunities for birds. Supposedly, bugs deposit eggs in the dead plant material, and whatever hatches out is appreciated by foraging birds. I certainly see them hopping around and scratching among the dead leaves, so maybe there’s something to that. (Of course, the big attractions at my place are feeders full of seeds and suet.)

Front garden perennial bed with dead stalks past its best

I’ll let this scene persist until we’re back to double-digit temperatures (in degrees C, of course), whereupon I will cut down the dead so the living may flourish.

Another plus to this approach is that it’s less work. I just hope I’m not creating a perfect environment for plant-eating larvae and fungi that will cause damage next spring and summer. I don’t think those organisms understand the concept of karma.

Fallen maple leaves and Geranium "Anne Folkard"

The Pond

There is a pond in my garden. I’ve mentioned it in numbers of posts, never explaining that it’s not a natural pond, but a completely artificial one, constructed (or maybe “installed” is a better word) in 1993.

When we moved to this 50 x 120 foot piece of paradise, there was no pond. Instead, toward the back of the property there was an enormous cherry tree, with a trunk a foot and a half in diameter. That in addition to half a dozen other large trees. Any cherries produced by the tree were too high to be picked, except by birds. The tree did not even have attractive flowers; they were a washed-out white. I decided it Had To Go.

We did not opt for “stump grinding,” so ended up with a substantial stump. I had been reading Henry Mitchell on the delights of garden ponds, so proposed we dig out the stump and install a pond in the resulting pit.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, digging out the stump and main roots of the cherry tree was a horrendous job. I seem to recall serious chainsaw abuse (a rented chainsaw, at that), as well as blunted axes and other saws. We were a lot younger then, but strained muscles and fatigue ensued, not to mention mud and grit.

The stump, when we hauled it to the landfill, turned out to weigh 300 pounds.

After that, digging out a 12 by 7 foot hole, two feet deep in the middle and a foot around the edge, was relatively easy, although the network of smaller roots slowed things down. (Roots — they’re still a problem in this garden!) The soil removed from the hole was distributed around the potential pond to create a bit of topography in a space that’s as flat as the proverbial pancake.

Once complete, the hole was lined with heavy-duty EPDM pond liner, the edges concealed with soil and rocks. While we were at it, we dug out a smaller hole next to the pond, laid in some pond liner and filled it with soil to form a “bog” for plants that need constant moisture around their roots. Then came the all-important steps of filling the pond with water and surrounding it with suitable plants. Those plants included two water lilies (one dark pink, the other white), a water iris and a floating plant called Elodea said to help oxygenate the water. Following Mitchell’s advice (and because it was easier), I installed no pump or filter, and never have to this day. But I did introduce half a dozen goldfish.

The pond was a delight in its early days. Sadly, I have only old fashioned prints, no digital photos. The water lilies bloomed, the goldfish multiplied, the surrounding plants (calla lily, astilbe, sedges, Irish moss) made the area look lush and jungle-like (in a temperate way).

The "jungle" by the pond (in June)

The “jungle” by the pond (in June)

This perfection did not persist, of course. The goldfish were fished out by a visiting great blue heron (a delight in itself) and by raccoons. I even saw a kingfisher once. I didn’t replace the fish, not only because I wasn’t about to set up a heron feeding facility, but because of an incident one fall, when in scooping out loads of fallen maple leaves with a rake, I also scooped out several fish. Once I realized that, I scrambled around in a panic rescuing a number of stranded fish gasping on shore. Somehow the idea of fish lost its charm after that. The raccoons (or their descendants) are still regular visitors, knocking loose stones from the edge into the water. Recovering and resetting those rocks has become a Tradition.

The water lilies no longer bloom, due to encroaching shade. The calla lily and astilbe still do, and ferns help to maintain that lush feeling. Reflections, and scatters of yellow autumn leaves add to the tranquility. A friend called the pond area a “magical oasis,” and that’s still true, even after it has been shaped by the realities of its setting.

Leaves and reflections.

Leaves and reflections.

A few practical notes: garden ponds really should have full sun. Mine doesn’t. Apart from the inhibiting effect on the water lilies, falling tree stuff creates a lot of work. It starts in spring, with birch catkins and the spent flowers of a nearby laburnum. Then the maples get going, and deposit leaves and winged seeds in all stages of development. Windstorms drop twigs from maples, birch and ailanthus. I have developed techniques of removal. An improvised net made from an onion bag, wire coat hanger and old broomstick is good for scooping, as is a rake for really heavy accumulations of leaves (hence the fish disaster already mentioned). For individual floating leaves, twigs and ailanthus leaf stems, a plain bamboo stake about 6 feet long is surprisingly effective. There is a Zen quality to standing by the pond for 20 minutes every day, artfully flicking these items out of the water to be raked up later.

Needless to say, it’s impossible to keep all the leaves and other debris out. Over the years a certain amount accumulates, forming muck, especially in the two foot deep part in the centre of the pond. Henry Mitchell said he drained and cleaned his ponds once every year or two, but after doing that once, I gave up. It was a huge, messy job. (Yes, it could be argued that it wouldn’t be so awful if done every year, but it’s about as much fun as oven cleaning). Natural ponds don’t get such treatment, I declared, so why should an unnatural one?

Natural ponds, however, usually have a water supply, either a creek or a spring. Without a constant input of fresh water, the pond would dry up, in the manner of a vernal pool. I pipe in water through permanently positioned hoses from rain barrels by the house and the garage. This works beautifully (aside from the hoses, which add an annoying element of weirdness to many of my garden photos), but only during the fall-winter-spring rainy season. In summer, I have to top up the pond from the metered supply. It’s either that or watch it turn into an ugly black hole.

A pair of mallard ducks — most likely denizens of one of the local parks — dropped into the pond regularly from April through July for several years. They didn’t try to nest here, but would swim around, investigating the muck on the bottom, and have a little snooze before taking off. Sadly, I haven’t seen them for the past two springs, but the duckweed they may have brought with them flourishes. A good deal of it sticks to fallen leaves I scoop out, which helps to control it, but I believe it’s here to stay nevertheless.

Pond visitors, May 2011

Pond visitors, May 2011

The rustic bench near the pond was made from a giant cedar trunk. Besides being the perfect pond-side accessory, it’s a great place to rest and think suitable thoughts between sessions of gardening (digging roots, cutting suckers, raking leaves). On sunny mornings cats hang out there, rather more than the gardener. The pond is a water source for all kinds of creatures, from those annoying (hole-digging, rock-rolling) raccoons, to squirrels (and probably rats) and a variety of birds.

The "Pond Bench"

The “Pond Bench”

 

Pete and Zeke on the Pond Bench, March 2010

Pete and Zeke on the Pond Bench, March 2010

 

Despite all the heavy work involved in creating the pond, and the attention it needs, I think it is an asset to this garden. The main path leads to it, but the trellis that marks the transition from the main back garden to the pond area partly conceals it, so in the best tradition of “garden rooms,” the sight of the water is a pleasant surprise, in all weather and at any time of year.

The Pond Vanishing Under Snow and Ice

The Pond Vanishing Under Snow and Ice

 

Ice on pond after low temp of -10 C

Ice on pond after low temp of -10 C

 

Spring 2014

Spring 2014

 

Ailanthus leaves and rain drops in the pond.

Ailanthus leaves and rain drops in the pond.

 

Too Many Leaves!

I spent this morning wading through masses of fallen leaves, overloading my compost pile with them, fishing them out of my pond and in the end cursing them.

There seem to be way more leaves than usual this fall, most likely because we have had fewer windy days and the leaves stayed close to home, rather than being blown to other people’s yards. Anyone who has read the garden-related posts on this blog must know that I often complain about the trees (Norway maples and a Tree of Heaven) that make my garden drier and shadier than I would like. I have also muttered about too much wind. Now that I’ve had to deal with the results of a windless autumn, I may appreciate windy days more, at least while leaves are falling.

In The Essential Earthman, gardener Henry Mitchell commented wryly on people’s zest for raking up fallen leaves, “as if the fate of the garden depended on raking them immediately.” It’s true that raking leaves is a fairly simple-minded chore and perhaps more fun than cutting down peony and daylily stalks, planting bulbs and pruning roses. A big pile of leaves with bare lawn around it surely does show that a gardener has been industrious.

Never mind that I, like the improvident gardener Mr. Mitchell speaks of, haven’t as yet cut down my peony stalks, or, for that matter, those of asters or the trailing stems of Geranium “Anne Folkard,” which wrap themselves around the rake like tentacles when I try to rake leaves from the perennial beds. Wouldn’t it be much easier to rake if I took the time to cut down those stalks and stems first? Of course, but then who says a gardener is always rational?

Tidiness aside, there are a few good reasons to rake leaves. First, thick mats of leaves on the crowns of perennials can lead to rot and slug attacks when the plants sprout in spring. Second, leaves blur the edges of garden features such as lawns and paths, imparting an instant air of neglect. That might not bother some gardeners, but it bothers me.

Having dug up the stepping stones of this path last summer, I would prefer to keep it leaf-free. “What path?” you say. “What stones?” Exactly. Which is why I raked it (yet again) this morning.

Finally, I will mention leaves and ponds. Now I know that installing a pond in the proximity of several large trees is not a good idea, but it’s too late. Every year I spend a considerable amount of energy removing fallen leaves from my pond, and every year quite a few of them sink to the bottom and add to the sludge layer down there. Unlike Henry Mitchell, I do not drain, clean and refill my pond once a year. More like once a decade, so all those sunken leaves are a cause for occasional fretting. Because the pond is the lowest spot in the garden, any nearby leaves tend to end up in it, so it’s important to rake them up.

The trees are finally bare and the majority of leaves corralled in a huge, messy pile (it can’t really be called a compost heap) that will eventually break down into leaf mold, which is always useful in the garden. But the wind has picked up and it promises to be a windy night. I just know there will be leaves in the pond again, and also in the basement stairwell, another popular low spot. I’ll be kept busy chasing leaves until next spring.