Sunday, 13 November 2011

Leaf fall

Autumn leaves of the Liquidamber styraciflua
at the boathouse, Scotney Castle Gardens

Every season has something to recommend itself, but for me autumn has always taken pride of place. I would love to experience a New England fall, but working in the garden or walking through the countryside here at home, I’m just as content to revel in the sights and smells of a Kentish autumn. I think it’s partly the freshness in the mornings, the smell of damp soil and bonfires, and the almost perceptible sound of the garden sighing after a frenetic summer's growing, drawing all its richness back into the ground as it prepares to muster its energies over the winter – ready to do it all over again next year.

And as the sap slows and nature draws her vitality back inward to hold it close against the winter cold, the trees release their leaves, their days of active service at an end. It’s these same leaves which make autumn for me; practically, as I spend the days coralling them into order with rake and blower, but also emotionally and symbolically since, with their heartwarmingly rich and vivid tapestry, they not so much signify the passing of one season as herald the coming of winter and Christmas; of dozing in front of warm fires and spending time with friends.

We should spare a thought for these leaves. They are the engine rooms of life on this planet, in the absence of which there would be no wood, coal, oil or gas (or plastic, for that matter). Without the ability of these paper-thin wonder structures to harness the energy of the sun – creating the sugars and oxygen on which all life at some point depends – the earth would be a rather dull asteroid of metals and rock. And so whatever your view of autumn leaves, whether as glorious spectacle, or as nuisance chore to be tidied up, be sure you pay the leaf the respect it is due.

And make time, whatever your age, to pull on a pair of boots, find the largest pile of leaves you can, and shuffle happily through them.


Your essential leaf collecting equipment would be: a gardener.

But if you must do it yourself, you will find a spring tine rake, and a large plastic leaf rake just as invaluable, if not more so, than a petrol leaf blower (and never an electric one, unless you have a very small garden).

Leafmold makes a wonderful soil conditioner, but avoid the temptation to add leaves directly to your compost heap, as they take a good year or more to rot down unless shredded beforehand, either with a lawn mower (which is also a very good way of collecting them off the lawn), or a vacuum/shredder tool. Alternatively, store the collected leaves in special leaf sacks or, failing that, plastic sacks with holes punched in them to allow a good flow of air, which will prevent them turning to soggy, smelly mush. Next season, you will have a wonderful, crumbly leafmold to improve the quality of your soil, or to use within your homemade potting compost.