Have you ever really thought about leaf raking? Why do we do it? Are those leaves a threat to our lawns? Or are they merely an eye sore? Do we do it because “someone” (probably a Victorian, and probably the same person who invented lawn mowing) decided it should be done and now it is accepted as another rule we must follow? (Personally, I suspect it is all a plot of the Lawn Worshippers.)
I know as a kid I loved raking leaves. They were dry, they were crunchy, they were light weight, and the piles were so much fun! You could jump in them, you could throw great armfuls at your friends and family (without anyone getting hurt), and you could stuff them into old clothes, creating scarecrows and porch decorations. But something happens when we grow up – seasonally fun activities like raking (and shoveling snow) become Chores. They are no longer fun. Instead, they are now Things That Must Be Done.
When I moved to the Adirondacks, I bought a house in a little “development.” My acre of property had exactly two deciduous trees, both black cherries that have seen better days. Sometimes I think they shed as many dead branches as actual leaves. For the first four or five years, I never even lifted a rake – there weren’t enough leaves to bother with. Since then, however, I’ve planted 11 apples, two pears, three crabapples, a red maple, a sugar maple, a couple elderberries, three dogwoods, three ninebarks, four serviceberries, three sumacs, three chokecherries, and two hawthorns, not to mention the grapes and hops. Admittedly, most of these are still too small to produce much in the way of leaves, but someday, should they all survive, I may be breaking out the rake once more. And I look forward to that day, because I need those leaves!
What in the world do I want all those leaves for? Unlike most Americans, I see leaves as Gardener’s Gold, not Yard Waste. When a tree sheds its leaves, it is also shedding a lot of nutrition. Well, maybe not a lot, but a fair amount. Leaves are the food factories of the trees. When fall comes, the trees (we’re talking deciduous trees here, not conifers) reclaim about 95% of the nutrition that’s left in the leaves, nutrition in the form of vital nutrients: potassium, nitrogen, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, et al. Still, that leaves 5% of those nutrients behind. In the natural world, the leaves fall to the ground, decompose, and voila! those nutrients are returned to the soil where the trees’ roots can absorb them the following year. Since I don’t have a ton of leaves smothering my yard, I feel perfectly content letting falling leaves lie, where they can decompose and feed my meager lawn.
But the ideal, for me, is to get those leaves into the garden. Most vegetable gardens are at least somewhat nutrient deficient. Sure, we could all go out and purchase bags of fertilizer and work it into the soil, but why not save some money and use the fertilizer that nature is already giving us? Instead of raking the leaves and bagging them for the dump (a concept that boggles my mind), take those leaves and pile them several inches deep in the garden. Give them a good watering, which will alert the critters in the soil that something is going on. Then take your hoe and chop the leaves into the earth. The worms will love you, having all this wonderful food available to them throughout the winter. You can even top dress it all with a few inches of straw, which will also decompose over time, providing even more nutrients for next year’s veg. Come spring, your garden will be ready and waiting for those seeds you spent the winter selecting from all those gardening catalogues.
But maybe you don’t have a vegetable garden and you find yourself swamped with autumn’s bounty. Consider donating your leaves to your community garden, or to your neighbor who gardens. You might even get some fresh zucchini in exchange!
As for me, I’ve been seriously considering two actions to boost my leaf intake this fall: posting “leaves wanted” signs around town, and clandestinely swiping bags of leaves from the curbs of Glens Falls. Maybe you could save me from awkward explanations to the police (“Honest, Officer, I was just collecting leaves for my garden”) by bringing your leaves to me.