Leaves aren’t litter

Fall brings out the collector in me. Sometimes I almost forget to look up and out at the changing colors because I’m too intent on scanning the ground for the perfect fall leaf. I’m on the hunt for the brightest, shiniest red tupelo. Or a sugar maple that is pumpkin orange except along its veins where it’s still summer green. Or a sweet gum splotched with every color from golden yellow through purple. They’re out there right now and I’m as determined to find one—before the landscape crews blow everything away—as my dog is to pee on it first.
If I were a craftier sort of person I might find a way to preserve fall leaves for as long as possible. Maybe I’d try soaking them in a glycerin solution, pressing them between sheets of wax paper, or under the weighty pages of my Oxford English and a stack of phone books. After which, I suppose I could decoupage a lampshade or make a wreath. Instead I just carry them with me for a few blocks and sometimes keep one to use as a bookmark until it disintegrates. I don’t mind letting them go because autumn, like every other season (except maybe winter), is meant to be fleeting and precious. I’d rather be reminded to pay close attention than to look at something so often that after awhile I forget to notice it anymore. Besides, there are better things to do with leaves than collect them.
They can be left where they are as nutrition for the very same tree from which they fell. Just as nature, a better recycler than we are, intended. Leaves certainly shouldn’t be treated as garbage. I blame whomever first coined the phrase “leaf litter” for the silliness of kicking them to the curb.
Nothing goes to waste if we rake leaves into the garden beds and call them mulch. Contrary to popular opinion, leaves won’t smother perennials. They’ll provide insulation just as a heavy snow cover would and amend the soil as they break down. To speed that process, shred them first. And then in spring, if your perennials are slow to wake under their blanket, pull it off them a little. Doesn’t that sound easier than trying to stuff them into those maddening giant-sized paper bags now? And all through next summer, that covering of partially decomposed leaves will help hold moisture in the soil and suppress weeds but still allow some of your favorite self-sowers to emerge. Win-win.
I hesitate to suggest the following for fear of an outraged uproar about untidiness but a few leaves can be left on the lawn. Mown into bits you’ll hardly notice them and they’ll fertilize turf they way they would their tree. I’ve even heard rumors that fallen maple and oak leaves might inhibit dandelion growth. Of course, to dandelion lovers like me that will be a disincentive.
If you can’t stand the idea of leaving leaves in the garden or on the lawn, at least set some aside to add to the compost. If your pile is anything like mine, its carbon (brown bits) to nitrogen (green stuff) ratios would be closer to the optimal 30:1 with nice thick lasagna layers of leaves added in to help heat it up.
And then please feel free to give the rest to me. Even though I have persisted in planting deciduous trees and shrubs in my tiny garden, not one is big enough yet to produce the kind of windfall that would satisfy my desires for the perfect leaf or my garden’s needs for soil amendment. On my walks around town I eye everyone’s brown bags-full jealously. I am as tempted to collect those—before they’re hauled off by the trash trucks—as my dog is to pee on them first.

Kristin Green is the interpretive horticulturist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum in Bristol, where she’s worked since 2003. Follow her garden blog at http://blog.blithewold.org.

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