raking leaves

The Art of Raking

Every day there are more leaves on the ground. The outlines of the garden are growing blurred under a patina of yellow, brown and muddled green. Time to get the rake out of the shed and wield it cleverly.

Leaves being assembled on the grass circle among perennial beds.

Leaves being assembled on the grass circle among perennial beds.

In a place like mine — a mosaic of paths, mixed beds and borders, and small sections of grass (usually known as “lawn”) — raking isn’t just a matter of applying the rake’s tines to the ground and stroking toward oneself. On grass and paths you can do that, but winkling leaves out from among herbaceous and woody plant stems and off groundcovers that range from tough (periwinkle) to fragile (moss) requires attention and a variety of techniques.

A delicate touch works best — don’t bear down hard on the rake, just feather along the surface to snag leaves without beating up the underlying plants. If there are accumulated layers of leaves, keep feathering until most are picked up. It’s all right to leave a few leaves behind; earthworms will take care of them over the winter. Concentrate on removing the heavy, wet leaf buildup that can cause rot. Agile wrist-flicks, turning the rake edgewise in narrow spots, using sideways moves when needed — raking requires a surprising range of arm and hand movements.

Getting leaves out from this kind of situation needs a bit of finesse with the rake.

Getting leaves out from this kind of situation needs a bit of finesse with the rake.

A lightweight rake that’s not too big works best. Bamboo rakes are very light, but I’ve read the ones available today aren’t as well made as in the past, and therefore not as durable. They are also pretty big. My rake of choice is an all-purpose hardware store model, nothing special, really. It’s more than thirty years old, with a wooden handle and metal head, now missing a few tines from each side.  I’ve been checking out rakes in stores lately, and will probably replace the old guy with a similar model that’s no heavier. I also have an all-metal rake whose width can be adjusted with a sliding device on the handle. It’s handy in tight spots or for scooping floating leaves from the pond surface, but is heavier than the wooden-handled dude, and not as well-balanced, so I don’t use it that often. For pond “raking,” a device made from a broom handle, wire coat hanger and a plastic onion bag works quite well, and is a lot lighter.

The Old Reliable is on the right, and the Adjustable on the left.

The Old Reliable is on the right, and the Adjustable on the left.

Leaves that are slightly damp are easier to manage than crackly-dry ones, which float around and are hard to corral. On paved surfaces, a surprisingly effective way to move big piles of leaves is to use feet and legs (encased in rubber boots, of course) in a kind of shuffling motion to push the leaves along. I regularly do this when I’m putting together the huge pile of leaves to be collected from the boulevard by the municipality. Really wet leaves are heavy and disgusting, so it’s best not to put off leaf management too long, at least in places that get a lot of rain in the autumn.

Raking for a couple of hours is pretty good exercise, especially for the upper body. And it’s a pleasant way to spend time in the autumn garden, especially on a nice day — almost sunny, almost warm, without wind. In my recent raking session, I also cut down old perennial stalks, yanked out some elderly rose campion plants, and thought about projects for next spring. In the end, I had tangible evidence of my industriousness in the form of a nice big pile of leaves awaiting removal to the compost heap, and without any of the noise-induced stress I imagine accompanies a session with a leaf-blower. (But then, I consider leaf-blowers to be abominations; maybe some get a feeling of power from the roar they emit).

A classic leaf pile.

A classic leaf pile.

Taking the rake around the garden is the last dance of the gardening year. Whether it’s a waltz, a samba or a tarantella depends on the quantity of leaves, the terrain being raked, and the gardener’s urgency to get the job done.

 

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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.

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