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The Urban Gardener: Leaves, the Gardener’s Friend

Saturday, October 18, 2014


Breathe deep, urban gardeners. It’s in the air all around us. Inhale, exhale, stretch. Brilliant fall foliage is key. Garden success is largely a matter of healthy, robust soils. One at a time, more again after rains, soon a monsoon of leaves swirls to ground. Lovely bright spots on bright green turf are soon in good company. Pedestrians crush leaves underfoot. The childlike shuffle through crisp dry leaves for the joy of it. They are ubiquitous. A wish fulfilled is apparent. The basic ingredient of minerals and complex carbohydrates manifests in each leaf. Multiply what some regard as a disposal issue and urban gardeners rejoice. Ambitious gardeners seek abundant sources of organic materials to compost. I look no further than the sidewalk. 

Our community garden plots, containers, and tight spaces are signature remnants of once forested lands. The soil has a long history of disturbance and movement. What appears as stationary or static is actually a lively experiment. Soils teem with life and never more so when organic materials feed an ever increasingly complex web of life. All garden plants have adapted to niche environments. Gardeners open the extensive horticultural dictionary for just the right vocabulary. Herbs, flowers, vegetables, fruits and berries are all responses to specific conditions. A gardener’s role is to facilitate nature’s course. We find favor with many plants when we mimic original, natural conditions. When at home, our horticultural efforts are tailor made imitations of the natural. 

I harvest leaves. My neighbors kindly rake up leaves from their driveways, back yards, and stuff large brown paper bags full. Colonists appear, one or three on sidewalks, stuffed full of leaves. Most find their way via city collection to landfills. Lately, municipalities have segregated areas for leaf disposal. Abandon the concept of disposal. The new frontier requests purposeful intentions. No longer do we carelessly treat leaves akin to litter. Rather, bags full of leaves are easily brought to garden plots large and small. Re-introduce humble leaves to the soil. A few useful tips will make your leaf harvest worthwhile. 

Time is your friend. Leaves are naturally resistant to insects and disease. Their role in the botanical world stretches far from simply photosynthesis. Roots bring water and nutrients to the leaves in exchange for complex organic molecules. Sensitive to day length, leaves drift away from their woody branches to layer after layer of slowly released packets of nutrition. Cities interrupt this natural cycle. Pavements, traffic, and a careless disconnect from the natural world consign leaves to oblivion. Savvy gardeners are thankful for the omission. We bring home bag after bag of leaves. You may concentrate on gathering bags and store as is for cold days ahead. Or, we rejoice in cool autumn days and lay out a banquet for the soil. 

The more leave surface exposed to the elements and especially soil borne micro-organisms, the better. Consider them an ingredient. A lawn mower is handy for shredding leaves. Some of us grin and mobilize leaf shredders. Much as a baker shifts flour, a gardener reduces larger leaves of every distinctive form into smaller parts. Don’t over think this. Soon, an allure becomes a habit. Shredded leaves offer many avenues for worms and microbes to overcome inherent defenses. Piles of leaves, bag after bag, are reduced to textured and cohesive smidgeons. Gather more! A fine way to work out of doors is at your fingertips. Shredded leaves readily decompose, much faster than leaves simply piled together. 

Don’t pile up leaves on growing ground. They will compact and may take up to a year to finally transform into humus. Neither mound leaves on turf. Leaves effectively smother other plants. However, leaves buried or covered in burlap, will form wonderful humus within their natural cycle of about a year. Most of us want to accelerate this process. Spread shredded leaves as a mulch around shrubs, trees and permanent plantings such as roses. Be sensitive to spring bulbs. An eight inch layer of leaves will effectively smother any plant beneath them. Do mix top soil onto the leaves. The basic idea is to inoculate leaf surfaces with compost or topsoil containing worm eggs, worms and microbes. It’s important to keep the leaves moist. Dry leaves endure far too long for most gardener’s needs. Do you have an obscure place to pile them? Go ahead and be patient. Remove the humus from under the heap as needed, probably next year. 

Bagged leaves are fine construction elements for compost schemes, heaps and piles. The paper bags are useful and surprisingly sturdy. They make fine wind baffles around roses and compost piles. Most are basic brown and blend into the garden’s winter colors. I’ve brought bags of leaves through the winter in near pristine condition. Again, wherever in contact with the ever hungry soil, the paper will decompose. Many gardeners have lifted a wintered bag of leaves only to have the bottom rotted through. These are not problems or deal breakers. Rather, the versatile nature of an abundant, cheap, nutrition packed resource works well for gardeners. 

I’ve great success layering leaves in compost piles. Use what is at hand, excavate topsoil from the pile’s location and put aside. Heap leaves into the depression and lightly cover with topsoil or another organic material such as manure, seaweed, peat or one of the leftover brown paper bags. Repeat. Repeat. Don’t fear height. Over the cold winter compost piles settle down. I like to cover compost piles with burlap, often free for the asking, or topsoil from the nearby garden. Often, a pile can be made right in the planting grounds. Decomposition takes place during the winter and accelerates as the days lengthen and temperatures rise. Often, frost does not freeze compost piles. Worms slowly eat away their banquet and lay eggs for future generations. When the daffodils bloom and you’re eager to plant cool weather spring crops the pile can be pulled down and turned into the soil or spread as mulch. In time, your garden will rise and naturally loosen; much labor is saved when re-assigned to worms and taken from expensive mechanical tillers. Robins will claim your garden and join the throng of birds that feast upon worms. 

Avail yourself of one of life’s great pleasures. Rake leaves and restore them to their natural role in the building of ever more biologically complex soils. Involve children in garden projects. Youngsters jump into leaf piles, laugh and shout. Much vigor displays the life affirming aspects of the leaf harvest. Gather brown bags full of leaves, curse the stray plastic litter blown about our cities among the leaves and remove, let go. Incorporate nature’s glory into your soil. All winter they’ll transform and release trace minerals transported from deep roots in the soil to the thin ribbon of humus that supports life on our planet. Become part of the wondrous cycle of life and reap the benefits. Breath deep, gaze skyward through the bare branches into the sky. Direct troubling thoughts to passing clouds and concentrate on the sky beyond. Sense the earth beneath your feet. The leaf harvest is good for the garden soil. Clouds carry troubles away. Inhale, exhale. Deep within, once again, the garden nourishes body and soul. 

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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