At the first signs of fall, being a kid I was the one responsible for clearing the dead leaves at home, and I got 25 cents for every bag I filled up. Some of them, the luckier ones, had the luxury of getting stuffed into orange bags to be used as Halloween decorations. The others piled up in common garbage bags. But all of them eventually met with the same fate: the green-waste pickup. It has to be said, the collection of green waste is an excellent municipal initiative for reducing the amount of material that would otherwise end up as landfill – but for the increasingly aware gardener that I’ve become, gathering up dead leaves to stuff them into plastic bags and then trucking them to the composting site now seems more like an aberration.
Why do we pick up dead leaves?
We often pick up dead leaves to make things “look better,” or because we’ve always done it, or more than anything because our neighbors do it. However, this “trash” is more deserving of the status of “resource.” We all too often forget that we’re impoverishing our soil by “cleaning” it, and if we add the use of plastic bags and transportation by truck to the equation, it becomes clearer how nonsensical this is. The principles of ecological gardening beckon us to reduce our input (soil, fertilizer) and to manage our waste better. Besides, the best waste is always the one we don’t produce.
A free goldmine
The advantages of keeping those dead leaves so unloved by the neighbors are numerous. If you’re a lazy sort of gardener, simply let them sit at the base of a tree, and trust in nature. If you’d like to speed up the process, run your lawnmower over them and shred them. This is what’s called leaf mulching. The more farsighted will set aside some reserves for next summer: you can use them to even out the carbon-nitrogen ratio of your compost, which is often too rich in nitrogen because of the fruits and vegetables from your kitchen along with the other green waste that goes into it. Reserve part of the leaves as a mulch to spread before the dog days of summer arrive, and do that even for your potted vegetable plants. You’ll be reducing the erosion that happens in heavy rains, retaining the moisture in your soil, and limiting unwanted plants – all this while offering shelter and food to the living organisms in your garden.
A few precautions
- To avoid the spread of certain diseases, obviously get rid of diseased plants.
- Try not to apply a layer of unshredded leaves, as these will become waterproof and suffocate your soil.
- Certain leaves and needles take longer to decompose, and may acidify your soil. Don’t use oak, walnut and conifers, for example.
In fact, to take a step in the direction of ecological gardening, we have to rethink the esthetics of our gardens. Times change, and uniformly green lawns and vegetable gardens with bare black earth are falling out of favor. What strikes us as beautiful is not necessarily what benefits nature.