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Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: Frosty Moon Leaf Harvest

Sunday, November 12, 2017


PHOTO: Leonard Moorehead

Our inexorable approach to winter is in the sky above and rustles among feet below. The frost moon warns us, winter’s icy fingers reach further from the poles. We fatten up upon holiday foods. Our pantries and larders are full. Old sweat shirts and jackets are essential garden wear. It’s the ideal time to turn our full attention towards distant spring. The resources surround us, ever frugal gardeners are prepared for the leaf harvest. Our soil is our chief asset, we’re posed at the ideal time to jump start nature and nourish next year’s garden. Let’s take a look at an abundant resource free to everything enterprising gardener. 

Many urban gardeners are opportunists. The new frontiers are not westwards, they are among vacant lots in once desolate neighborhoods. Old pavements, foundations, and faded hope are testament to long occupation. The people left behind grand wooden houses from pre technological eras.  Fire and time took their tolls. Gaps in once solidly built up neighborhoods are no longer attractive nuisances. Litter, mattresses, furniture, collect in once proud house lots. Enterprising gardeners are colonizing these vacant lots, community gardens and solo ventures claim these lots with public and political approval. 

The journey from eye sore to paradise is visionary. These things always begin as a dream, it certainly did with me. What does one find in vacant lots? Fresh food, vibrant up lifting flowers, wholesome purpose are ahead. We begin with a limited budget and wheel barrows of hope. Gardens alpha and omega are soil, water and light. Guide efforts with an eye to these values and prosper. It takes work. 

Soil sustains life.  The top 6 inches or root zone provides the bulk of nutrients all plants require to prosper and create the next the generation. The earth is generous. Our efforts mimic nature, we overturn many years of occupation and return lands to farm. With lots of elbow grease and a few savvy tips once sterile spaces are returned to life. A broad brush approach to reviving soils is much the same in built up house lots or long neglected gardens. Let’s begin where it starts, wholesome soil. 

Remove litter. Cart away debris. Save survivor trees and shrubs. There is much merit in roses that persist long after a house has gone. Prune back, clear away rubble. Stones and old pavements can be buried or revealed as heirloom architectural pieces. Old foundations offer distinct possibilities. Retain old stone flights of stairs. Poke around the former cellar, locate any possible petroleum contamination. Wherever possible, retain artful old stone work, stabilize any walls, plumb for long hidden dry wells, cap with a sturdy cover. Observe plant colonists, natural growth indicates moisture, soil ph, and light exposure. All will guide future plantings. 

Dig trowel depth holes and collect soil samples for virtually free or dyi soil testing. Soil tests by way of our local universities reveal soil ph and chemical pollutants. Life is powerful. We can remedy much in the way of toxic pollution with help from city agencies and elbow grease. In the short term, no gardener wishes to cultivate a garden in the hope of wholesome produce upon lead contamination. Decades of lead paint has left a heavy signature upon soils and adjacent ecosystems. The most common remedy is to bury under a thick layer of topsoil placing toxic elements beyond the reach of root systems. Raised beds, containers, and wholesale soil replacement are successful coping tactics. 

Soil is complex. Plants require ample amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, relatively abundant in nature. They also require “trace” elements for best nutrition. Most elements are water soluble. Our geographic history of ice ages, the approach and decline of massive ice sheets moved soil, created sand and gravel, the melt water leached nutrients into the sea. The process continues, in urban areas, salted roads, petroleum fuels, and fertilizers are washed into storm drains or percolate into water systems. There is a way to healthy soil despite the absence of nutrients or presence of soil pollutants. Gardeners guide natural processes and build life giving soils. 

Soils contain much life. Many micro- organisms are on the forefront of environmental sensitivity. Fungi, algae, and so called lower life forms are essential for healthy, pest resistant plants. All flourish when fed complex hydro-carbonates. Massive amounts of organic matter collects in our cities. We collect much valuable organic matter each year, bag it, and it disappears into the maw of large landfills. Some is composed in public compost efforts. Only a token amount returns to the soil and complete the circle of life. Urban gardeners are uniquely positioned, one bag at a time, to gather leaves and return valuable nutrients to the soil. 

Foliage is species distinct, every plant has characteristic leaves. Each is a blend of nutrients, all contained within sturdy cellulose. Colorful? An added bonus. Fragrant? More so. Abundant? Yes, and free for the collecting along sidewalks each trash pickup day. Bring leaves in bulk to the garden and renew much abused or neglected soils. Brown paper bags of leaves along our city streets are just right for gardeners. 

There are many schemes for composting leaves into humus. Essentially, leaves decompose over time, gardeners accelerate the process. Collect bags of leaves or rake your own onto painter’s canvas drop clothes and drag into the garden. Remove plastic litter and properly dispose. Create as much disturbed leaf surfaces as possible, shredding with a power mower or leaf shredder goes a long way, or don’t. Dry leaves have a long shelf life, moist leaves decompose much faster. In new gardens and reclaimed vacant lots, earthworms and beneficial soil micro-organisms have starved away. Provide the food, in the form of leaves, and they will slowly return. Continue adding organic material and the soil rebounds towards ever increasing life. 

Soils’ appetite for organic matter is bottomless. Dozens of leaf bags disappear into garden soils over the winter months. The more and continuous addition of leaves enlivens soil’s capacity to digest great quantities into nutritious humus. There is much health and joy in the annual leaf harvest. Outdoors, in fresh air and sunshine is good for people. Hand raking need not be laborious or tedious. Pick up a thick handled, rubber tined rake and systematically rake leaves windrow style onto sheets or canvas tarpaulins. Breath deep, use the body’s rhythm and use hand tools joyfully. Focus upon the task at hand, live in the moment. Bring the harvest home to the garden. 

Shred leaves and spread the pleasing textured debris as a thick 6”-8”mulch. Surround perennial plants and shrubs. Tear brown paper bags and lay down under the mulch. Shredded leaves are fine soil insulation. Rain and snow saturate the mulch, frost is inhibited. As moisture slowly enters the underlying soil, valuable nutrients are carried below into soils less prone to freezing. Warmer soils harbor active earthworms and micro-organisms. Garden staples, such as potatoes are fine left under thick mulches. Tulips, daffodils, and many other bulbs, are protected from squirrels and foot traffic. A thick mulch disappears, the more mulch added over time, the faster the process and quicker results. 

Bury unshredded leaves. Dig trenches 2 or 3 spade lengths deep. Lay aside the topsoil. Pack the leaves into the trench and replace the topsoil, cap with mulch. Soil organisms will attend the banquet. Most leaves will transform into humus by next spring. Ignore the raised aspect apparent at the beginning, by the next growing season, the uneven soil will even out. 

Composting is the focused digestion of organic materials into humus. Compost has legendary fertility. The fastest way to improve bulk soil is via “sheet” composting or simply, thick mulches. Enjoy frosty days out doors and bring in the leaf harvest. Leaves are free, abundant and useful. Bury in the garden or shred and spread as mulch. Vacant urban lots are opportunities. Harvest nutritious foods from once litter prone lots. Our bodies and souls are so much the better for it. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life- long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence, RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit tree.


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