April- May: Leaves, leaf mulch and new garden beds

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May 5, 2018

The poplars have turned into pillars of gold. There are drifts of orange horse-chestnut leaves on the terrace and stubborn brown plain tree leaves, crisp as toast, on the verandah. There are yellow ash leaves sprinkled artfully all over the driveway, like gorgeous curtain fabric.

When my sister and I were little we made piles of poplar leaves with Dad every autumn and dived and pretended to swim in them, or buried each other, our friends, pet cats, or any passerby. I remember the crunch of leaves in my underpants and ears and tangled in my hair. Though, now I think about it, and am a parent myself, I suspect my sister and I did little in the way of actually making the leaf pile and probably just spread it out by rolling and playing in it after Dad had done all the work.

Now I am all grown up, I make piles of leaves instead of spreading them. I would be raking as I write this, I was raking, till the wind got up and drove me inside. Wind and leaf raking are vexed companions.

So how do we deal with all our abundance of fallen leaves? There has been talk of leaf blowers. We have resisted this, so far. I can’t get the Leunig cartoon of the two neighbours blowing leaves onto each other’s urban yard out of my head. One gleeful gentleman blowing leaves over his neighbour’s fence first-thing, and the other blows all the leaves back while his neighbour fetches his paper. The other problem is the noise. There is enough of those sort of noises without them invading my autumnal garden time. We will see how long our resistance lasts.

There has been talk of rake attachments for the mower. This too has come to nothing, so far.

We rake leaves into piles and then scoop or rake them onto a trusty blue tarpaulin. Then we tow the tarp of leaves to a garden bed and pile them onto it thickly, as mulch.  Blood and bone can be sprinkled in with the leaves to help them break down into something even more enriching.

I have extended or started whole new garden beds this way, converting bits of lawn or patches of weeds.  In this case, ideally, I cover the area of grass or weeds I want to magically turn into garden bed with cardboard first and then put the leaves on top and water it all down.  The cardboard makes a barrier for the grass and weeds and smothers them (except dandelions which are made of tougher stuff). The leaf covering stops the area looking like the recycling section of the tip. Then you just wait a couple of months before planting (disturbing the coating over the soil as little as possible as you do so) into the lovely new and hopefully weed free, planting space.  If this is done in autumn then the ground under the cardboard should stay moist.  If you have heavy soil, then wonderful worms tunnel about and aerate the soil for you. If your soil is light and prone to getting dry, dusty and water repellant, then the mulch will help it retain water.

When there are no fallen leaves about, or if you want a longer lasting layer to go on top of your cardboard, then something like gum bark mulch works perfectly. Gum bark mulch is dark brown, which is a colour I prefer over pine bark. It’s full of long stringy fibres. The fibres make it hard to spade out of the back of the ute, scooping forkfuls is easier, but they form a wonderful mat to keep the weeds from getting through.

I get my cardboard for free by haunting my local hardware store’s cardboard skip. They are always pleased to see me emptying the skip out because it costs them money to have the cardboard collected. While one feels that one might appear to be a little down-and-out scavenging from a skip, it is all worth it for the thrill of finding an enormous flattened fridge box, or, another favourite, the box a flat packed garden bench came in.

I use this same method to suppress weeds in parts of the vegetable garden between the old crop and the new: the parts where I want to plant things like tomatoes or other biggish seedlings (the method is not so good for areas that you want to sew seed). In the vegetable garden I use pea-straw, lucerne or other straw mulch on top of the cardboard instead of leaves, or bark.  Bark in particular wouldn’t work well in a vegetable patch, because the bark takes too long to break down. The soil will likely be turned and disturbed before the bark has composted down. Mixed into the soil, the bark’s breaking down process will leech goodness from the soil.  

My leaf, mulch and cardboard tactics are part of my overarching strategy to attempt to give things to the soil rather than taking them away, especially things, such as leaves, that the soil has had a hand in producing. The Valleyfield soil has been cultivated for crops for 200 hundred years now. It is wonderful, fine, free-draining alluvial soil.  But it doesn’t retain moisture like the clay based soil I gardened with before. I have to water much more often than I did in my previous garden. Before I mulched to break up the clay soil. Now I mulch to help the soil retain water and to enrich it.

It should be said that the giving things back to the soil strategy doesn’t result in the tidiest of garden beds. When I was little the surface of the garden beds were scraped to the dirt after weeding and there was an incinerator that regularly smoked away on our rubbish. In autumn there were often piles of leaves and such billowing black smoke. As a child I was keen on the incinerator (good for poking with sticks) and the leaf fires. I  have happy memories of my grandmother helping us put damper and potatoes wrapped in foil in such a fire. We still burn big things sometimes, like large fallen tree limbs that are no good for anything else, and diseased plants or the dreaded oxalis weed, but not clippings and autumn leaves! My garden beds are littered with, not just leaves, but weeds I have pulled out (ideally weeds before they have gone to seed) and the clippings from plants that I have pruned or dead-headed such as scraggly spent lavender (ideally not thorny plants or plants infected with rust or mildew, such as roses). In fact, I sense, though this could just be the super-sensitivity of a person who has taken-over a garden that was previously looked after and loved by other members of my family, that I am considered rather messy and slap-dash in my weeding and clipping habits. It is true, that my strategy could be regarded as a kind of laziness because it means I don’t have to trouble myself with loading up wheelbarrows of debris and taking them somewhere else. However, I have found a rationale for my untidiness.

My neighbours, who have a glorious rose garden, make a sort of leaf cage with a cylinder of fencing wire (the smaller holed sort of fencing wire the keeps out wallabies and rabbits rather than sheep and that is stiff enough to make a cylinder when wired together without extra support). They pile their leaves into the cage with sprinklings of blood and bone to rot down over winter. Then when spring comes, they use the resulting leaf litter to mulch their rose beds.  This is a good way of using leaves, and, I’m sure, better for the soil in existing flower beds than putting the leaves on before they have broken down. I will try making a leaf cage tomorrow!

See below for picture 10 minutes after I raked the front lawn and two minutes after the wind got up.