Fifteen years ago, leaves weren’t as plentiful in my garden as they are today. Two maples planted in the parkway and a Bradford pear smack dab in the middle of the front yard were the only vertical elements, aside from the house, on our property. All three were chosen and planted (in their cages) by the builder. The trees are bigger now and I’ve since added to the collection, which means I have more to rake every fall. And I’m glad. Sure, leaf raking is another task on a laundry list of fall chores. But when you understand their value to a gardener, you’ll see why I went to great lengths to acquire them in the early days of my horticultural odyssey.
Gypped on Soil, Low on Cash
Our neighborhood sits on a former farm. I should have top-notch soil, right? Nope. The builder dug out the good stuff, sold it and backfilled all the properties with what amounts to crap. But then that’s not fair to “crap” because you can compost that and make some pretty sweet soil. So I’ll call it clay sprinkled with a generous amount of glass shards, bottle tops, roofing nails and sharp colorful plastic bits. I’m up-to-date on my tetanus shot just in case.
Short on cash with two babies in diapers and a desire to dig, I knew I’d have to find an affordable way to improve what I had. As it was, I didn’t have a snowman’s chance in hell at growing anything if I didn’t address the soil. I needed organic matter, desperately. Bringing in truckloads of compost was way outside my budget, so I started with leaves. In addition to burying the kitchen scraps in shallow holes everywhere (and battling our dog who loved digging it all up), I rounded up bagged leaves every fall from the more established parts of town where towering trees formed arching canopies over the streets. I perused these neighborhoods in my little Chevy Malibu, the babies in car seats and my trunk wide open and stuffed with bags of leaves. One caveat to corralling the leaves of others, you never know exactly what they consider yard waste. Dog turds are common.
One by one, I’d empty the bags on our lawn, lower the blade on the mower and go back and forth over the pile. Until a pile this size…
… became a pile this size. Seems like a lot of leaves until you mulch it and reduce it to this.
Dump, Mulch, Spread, Repeat
And so it’s gone for years. I’ve relied less on my neighbor’s trees as mine have grown. We’re one of the few houses on the block without a line of yard waste bags along the curb. Leaves are far too valuable to give away. Every fall, the beds are dressed with a few inches of leaf mulch and the lawn gets a very light dusting. Young hydrangeas are mounded and tucked in tight with unmulched leaves to preserve buds in the old wood and the compost bin gets a hearty helping. Come spring, I rake the leaf mold into the top layer of soil. The brown carbon that results from the decomposing leaves adds water-holding capacity and aeration.
And this is why it’s worth it. This year, my garden exploded. The soil is loose. I built it and they came. Hummingbirds, wrens, butterflies, woodpeckers, dragonflies, bats, bugs and flowers. Oh man the flowers. My yard is a destination and everything I dreamed it would be 15 years ago when all I had was hope and determination. It came down to a change in perspective. Every season offers me something for which to be grateful. When Autumn arrives, I’m thankful for fallen leaves.
What about your garden fills you with gratitude?
Not sure what trees to add to your garden? Check out my post on the importance of variety when making your selection.