Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Gift of Leaves

Autumn leaves are wonderful things. Their bright and often deep earthy colors evoke a longing for calm and a slower time of year. Even the yellows and oranges have a profundity about them that demands a solemn and joyous attention. They are beautiful and soothing symbols of change.

But they are more than this. They are also gifts of the fertile earth and part of nature's way of nourishment.

A fresh green leaf on a vernal maple tree draws nutrients from a vast storehouse of compounds and minerals that are kept in the trunk and the roots of the tree. Some of these nutrients were taken directly from last year's atmosphere. Others were absorbed by the surface roots that received the decaying products of last year’s fallen leaves. Still other nutrients have come from deeper in the soil where minerals have been slowly prized from the older rocks, gravel and sand.

Through the summer this leaf will gather the energy that comes from the sun and use it to rework the air and the soil into a packaged piece of latent life. In the autumn as it falls to the earth, it carries with it these ingredients of future growth and health.

Sadly, not many of us see these free gifts of the earth for what they are worth. Perhaps we stop at Thanksgiving time and enjoy the beauty of the changing leaves but how often are we thankful for the fallen leaves? Or, more likely, are we bothered by the extra work of raking or blowing them off the lawn?

In our eastern cities where trees grow more plentifully, homeowners often have access to a service of landscape waste removal. All that is required is to have the leaves piled in the street where the city takes care of removing them. In the drier areas of the country, leaves can be piled into dumpsters and removed with the weekly garbage. Either way, the gift of leaves is lost and the natural cycles of regeneration are lost with it. We are left with only the artificial alternatives and superficial gardens that mass marketing enables. In the end we may have green lawns and pretty flowers but never with the sustainable fertility that comes from the gift of leaves. A few plants may thrive but the natural diversity of a vital soil is lost.

Fallen leaves are only gifts if they are worked back in to the soil. Maybe there are too many of them on your lawn and they really have to go. If so, consider yourself lucky. You have an excess of the gift of leaves. Chances are your neighbors do to and just don't know it. You have a great opportunity to gather these gifts and pile them up in your backyard. If you're worried that the wind might blow them around again, sprinkle water on top and cover them with something substantial. Before you do, however, you really should let the kids roll around in them with the dog and smell their autumn richness. It will be an aromatic memory that will stay with them all their life.

Make your pile as big as you can. Gather leaves from those who don't want them. Find leaves that come from different kinds of soil. They will add variety to your pile. In a few weeks you will notice that your pile is smaller. It is already starting to decay. At this point you might want to find some barnyard manure to mix in. If you have a hard time finding some, try looking in the garden section of a hardware store. You can often buy steer manure in a bag for cheap. This manure is a magic ingredient. If you mix it in well with the leaves, or even pile it in layers, and keep it moist, the earthworms will take over with a vengeance. You may not be aware that you have earthworms. You may have even been responsible for killing a lot of them with your commercial monthly landscape routine. But this manured pile of leaves will attract worms if there are any of them around at all.

Then after a few weeks, indulge your curiosity and look under your pile. You will be amazed at the number of small creatures running around. They are all busy changing the gift of leaves into the perfect food for plants. Every few weeks you should turn your pile over. In a few months you will have created a rich humic soil that will be better for your garden than the most expensive fertilizer you can buy. This process may take a little longer if it get's cold over the winter, but don't worry, the leaves will come through. Just be patient.

And while you wait, be thankful. The fallen leaves in your yard are not meant to torment you. They are a gift. And they can make you happy.

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