Earth knows no desolation. She smells regeneration in the moist breath of decay.
– George Meredith, 1828-1909, English novelist and poet
Happy fall day!
Fall season in the Pacific Northwest is synonymous with alternating bouts of soft rain showers, hard rain, rain deluge, wind, hail, warm-wet storms
from the south Pacific competing with frigid northerly winds and more rain. But then the sun will come out and warm and dry us once again. We revel in the beauty of this season as we venture out for our fall walks and absorb the amazingly gorgeous leaf colors that this time of year brings to our little corner of the world.
It’s October. The tree’s leaves reveal their true colors that lie hidden under the chlorophyll as it dissipates with the ebbing sunlight, only to drop as bounty to blanket the ground in glorious color. I love the fall for its beautiful sunny days and the beauty and systematic purpose of creation as it gears down for a long winter’s nap. It also brings the promise of a time of rest for me from what can at times be the rigors of tending the summer garden.
To the savvy and frugal gardener it also means time to rake in the gold!
The gold I refer to are all those deciduous tree and perennial leaves that are beginning to drop. Beautiful, wonderful, nutritious, weed blocking, soil feeding leaves blowing around that land on your lawn and garden beds. If you are like me you purposely planted deciduous trees with small leaves like Katsura and Japanese maple varietals. Small leaves or leaf pieces are faster to decay without smothering and are easy to rake and distribute over your garden beds like a snuggly winter blanket that will become food for your soil by spring time. Food for your soil means food for your plants, which means free fertilizer!
I cannot help but shake my head when I see homeowners and hired groundskeepers blowing leaves away (and into the street only to clog storm drains and cause minor localized flooding…but that’s a rant for another post) or neighbors grumbling as they rake then dump their leaves into yard waste bins for the city to pick up and haul away. Those leaves go to a compost facility only to be treated like the gold that they are for some months before the compost they become is bagged and sold back to the gardener who then spreads it over the garden. Save your time and money friend. You’ve already done the job of raking it off your lawn, now instead of giving it away, just deposit it over your garden beds and let it do the work of natural decay.
Honestly, can anyone really say they prefer the deafening drone of a gas powered leaf blower over the soft scritch-scritch of a leaf rake? Ever been on a walk, reveling in the beauty of color and sun on a quiet fall day only to round the corner and encounter, well…which would you rather hear? Not to mention the cloud of dust, debris and pollen that blower stirs up…well hello seasonal allergies!
Now that the leaf blower has done its job, the soil is bare once again and awaiting any and all airborne weed seeds to come in for a landing and call your garden home.
Have you ever considered the normal order of the seasons in nature? Rarely if ever, do you see bare soil. The forests annually cover their feet and floor with leaf drop and the meadows clothe themselves with leafy groundcovering perennials. Mostly, where you see a weedy mess is where the ground is regularly swept bare and weeds are allowed to multiply because there isn’t someone or something to constantly monitor or stir up the area.
My entire back and side yard are garden and the only places I have to do regular weeding is along portions of the walkways where foot traffic pushes away my annually laid leafy mulch.
My leaf corralling tools are inexpensive and easy to acquire.
1. A garbage can of a size easy for you to handle when full. Dry leaves are very light weight so a full can is not terribly heavy, but if you have to rake leaves between rain showers like I did today, wet leaves can be much heavier so it’s a good idea for your container to be of a size that accommodates your abilities.
2. A spring rake or leaf rake. This is not a heavy plastic rake. This rake has metal tines that are thin, light and springy. They reduce the amount of effort by half (if not more) and actually flip the leaves up rather than dragging them across. Believe me, when you experience the difference you will see the value of this rake.
3. Snow shovel. Don’t you just love the value of a thing that has more than one purpose? I do! It sure saves room in the tool shed. Once you get your leaves into a pile with your beloved spring rake, your trusty aluminum light weight snow shovel is the perfect tool to scoop them and (tilted at just the right angle) pour them easily into your can. With the snow shovel you will get through that pile in no time!
That’s it! One rake, one snow shovel and one can. No gas that needs to be mixed with oil. No running to the gas station because the blasted thing is out of gas. No ear plugs. No straps to keep a heavy gas powered-smoke-belching-engine-way-too-close-to-my-head strapped to my back. No machine that needs to drained of the gas/oil (now-what-do-I-do-with-it) before it gets stored for winter. No electrical cords to trip over or curse at because you just. can’t. quite. reach. Ok…maybe just one little rant. Thanks for indulging me.
So now that my can is full, I pull it (mine has wheels 😊) to where I want and proceed to pour out and spread an even layer over the soil, thus putting it to bed for the winter. Initially those fluffy leaves can be a nice 6-12 inch layer. It will quickly settle to less than half. Care must be taken not to cover plant tops with all these leaves. The leaves can be spread up to the stems of plants and it is ok to cover bare crowns of herbaceous perennials like Asparagus or Hostas once their leaves have died back.
This should be an enjoyable exercise, not a chore. Consider getting out to rake every other day or so depending on your leaf drop (and the weather of course). You can get smaller amounts raked quickly with a modest amount of effort, equating to regular exercise not to mention the de-stress-after-work benefit. If you leave it all to the end when your trees have dropped all their leaves, much of them will have blown away, losing a valuable resource and the job will be more time consuming all at once making it possibly an arduous task that you don’t enjoy. The goal is not to end up with a five foot pile to deal with!
The benefits of this pleasurable activity are numerous…
- Weed control (weed seeds that blow around from neighboring yards can’t find purchase on bare soil because yours is now not bare) so your plants aren’t competing for nutrients with weeds. And who wants to spend time weeding anyway?
- Protective layer for plants root systems that may otherwise succumb to freezing temps.
- Fertilizer. Compost and leaf mulch is well documented for its nutritious benefit to the garden.
- Soil tilth. Soil microbes and worms seek out this decaying matter and turn it into food for your plants.
- Soil health and plant health. See 1-4 above.
- Gardener health. Cardio, muscle building (hello abs!)and mental health as it’s so good to get outdoors.
It's WIN-WIN! Fall exercise for your body equates to winter protection becoming spring nutrition for your garden. Does it get any better than that?
Fall time in the garden should be enjoyable, savoring the last days of gardening for the year, putting your garden to bed for the winter and putting potted plants where winter’s freezing temperatures won’t harm the plants or break the pots. If you don’t already, please also consider leaving seed heads on certain plants to feed the birds that winter over in your region. Already I am enjoying watching the juncos feed on the seed heads of Liatris and Echinacea. If you need more convincing, please enjoy my previous post for benefit to less fall cleanup and more time to go on lovely fall day walks and take advantage of the mental healing time spent outdoors can provide.
Side note: If your trees have big leaves that does mean an extra step, because big leaves mat down like plates over one another and can smother neighboring plants and shed the rain off that you want to seep in to the soil. Big leaves need to be chopped smaller then corralled by a method of your choosing. A quick search online can give many options but I think the easiest is running your lawn mower over them with the catcher in place, then spread over your garden beds.
In Bloom in my Garden Today: Ajuga, Aster, Caryopteris ‘Longwood Blue’ (bluebeard), crocus speciosus (blue fall crocus), Cyclamen hederifolium, Daisy (white double), Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’ (joe pye weed), Fuchsia, Geranium ‘Mavis Simpson’, Heuchera, Hyssop, Kirengeshoma palmata, Lavender, Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ (catmint), Oregano vulgare compactum ‘humile’ (compact oregano), Phygelius (cape fushia), Rose ‘Shropshire Lad’, Rose ‘Reine de Violette’, Rosemary, Salvia garanitica ‘Black and Blue’, Solanum crispum