The Leaves They Are A’Changin’

It’s that time of year..the leaves are falling fast and furious now and my thoughts are turning towards the annual hibernation that gardeners are forced to take in New England. I have to say, after a summer full of garden tours, classes, stone path building and other hard work in the garden, I am ready to call it quits for another year.

As a habitat gardener, I don’t feel at all guilty about putting my feet up, either. While some gardeners do a thorough cleaning of their perennial beds each fall, scalping them and raking them clean of every bit of plant debris, one of the tenets of habitat gardening is to leave your gardens a little messy at the end of the year.  Allowing the flower heads to stand supplies a valuable seed source for foraging birds right into winter. As I write, my dying flower gardens are still buzzing with life, with American Goldfinches and Chickadees feasting from the smorgasbord of Coneflower, Rudbeckia, Ironweed, Verbena, Zinnia, Cosmos and Cleome seed heads. Of course, when I brought my camera outdoors, they all dove into the safety of the woods…:


Conventional gardening wisdom states that you should clean up your gardens at the end of the season to destroy the eggs of plant pests, but I take the opposite approach. Most of the tiny creatures that overwinter in my gardens are probably beneficial in some way…they are the “good guys”. Butterflies and other pollinators, predatory bugs, dragonflies, ladybird beetles, most of them spend the winter here in some form, as an egg, chrysalis or adult. They need those fallen leaves, plant stems, old stumps, loose bark and piles of brush to survive through the winter. A few of the “bad guys” don’t worry me – they are usually eaten by something else before they can cause much damage. (the exception to this rule is vegetable gardens, which harbor many pests and should be cleaned up each fall!)

DCF 1.0The falling leaves don’t bother me either. Why go to all the trouble of raking, bagging and disposing of leaves, when they are one of nature’s best soil improvers? Leaves are a great source of nutrients to feed your soil and help it retain moisture. Don’t trash your fall leaves…they are one of your yard’s most valuable resources! Here are some ways we have learned  to deal with all our leaves:

  • rake them into piles and let them rot for 6 months or a year. The result is called “leaf mold” which is an excellent FREE alternative to buying bark mulch or cocoa mulch for your garden beds!
  • add them to our compost pile which, being heavy on the nitrogen (horse manure), really benefits from the influx of a carbon source. We have friends and family who also happily bring us their bags of leaves!!
  • mow them into shreds! Rob mows right over the leaves in our lawn with a mulching mower, shredding them into tiny pieces that blow into the grass and into my garden beds.  The shreddings in the grass quickly disappear, as soil micro-organisms decompose them into a valuable soil amendment to the lawn.

We have an area next to our driveway which has always frustrated me because it looks so awful. It is a cold north-facing slope under the dense shade of Hemlock trees, with cement-like soil compacted from driveway construction. For years, I have lamented because little would grow there except invasive weeds such as Asiatic Bittersweet and Glossy Buckthorn.  In the past few years, however,  I have noticed an exciting transformation. The process of mower-mulching the leaves from our driveway onto the drivewayside is creating an amazingly rich woodland soil, and native woodland wild flowers such as Trillium, Solomon’s Seal, (below) White Wood Aster and False Solomon’s Seal have all appeared there, all on their own! Presto – a woodland garden! It is amazing what will grow, when you work with nature instead of trying to control it…

IMG_5353 solomons sealSo anyway, gardeners, don’t waste your time stripping your gardens this fall. Use the beautiful weather to go for a hike or take the kids apple picking. I, for one, won’t be gardening much any more. It’s time for me to devote some much-needed attention to my young pony Sneaks, who I started “under saddle” this summer…

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