Sunday, 19 October 2008


                                   Miraculous mess - leaves on my lawn.

Here we are, in the most deliciously melancholy of seasons, watching the floral world subsiding to mush  - just as it should in October.  Colours are running through gentle changes and the sky is returning to our vistas and backdrops, as the branches become bare.  The trees seem happy to be shedding their scabrous clothes, like tired old tramps who've been offered bath and bed, and at our feet, shifting carpets of reds, browns, dun and beige rustle companionably as we walk over them. 

And yet all I see and hear are gardeners frenziedly raking and scraping, gathering up the unwanted harvest to pile up for leafmould or worse, to cram into their garden compost bins for the councils to remove.  Worst of all, some heap them to burn in fitful, acrid fires.  Bonfires?  They should be called malfires! 

I welcome the fallen leaves, loving the changing colours and enjoying dynamism as the garden scene transforms to winter.  The lawn looks beautiful, when leaf-strewn and on my borders, even though they look untidy, I can make myself be patient and wait for rotting to begin.  That is so much easier than the alternative of raking up, composting and then forking the leafmould back onto the soil after all that unnecessary work.

Leaf colour has been brief but brilliant for us this year.  Star trees were Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium' (left) and Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy' (below.)  They took ages to turn but then, instead of lingering sweetly on the trees, succumbed to the gales and were first shattered and then scattered.

We have to re-think leaves.   They are friends, rather than enemies and we should welcome them.   In the London parks, what little peace there is gets shattered on a daily basis by loud, pointless, petrol driven leaf blowers which shift them about the grass.  

Even among shrubs, instead of being allowed to lie and decay, they are feverishly hoiked out and piled up.  The process transforms them from naturally forming mulches into heaps of undesirable waste, to be disposed of rather than treasured.

Even at such conservation-minded places as the RHS Garden, Rosemoor, when I was last there, noisy blowers were shifting leaves across the lawns.
When we moved to our present garden, I was determined to run a 'slow gardening' policy with a laisser-faire approach to maintenance.  I make it a rule not to remove leaves from borders unless they are likely to damage vulnerable plants by over-lying them.  The whole place looks untidy for a while, but one learns to tolerate the mess.  The problem, I suggest, is in our heads, rather than in the leaves causing problems.  One can unclog gutters and claw matted, decaying leaves from drains or from between rocks in an Alpine garden.  But the rest can do no better than to lie, die and give their sustenance back to the soil.

The same principle goes for tidying up flower borders - but more on that anon.
Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy' in October


  1. I totally agree with you. I used to leave everything where it was on the basis that it would blow into corners and rot down naturally the same way it does in the wild. After all, no one goes around the rainforest with a leaf-blower, do they? However: I have had problems recently with my loquat, which suffered an attack of shot hole virus, and my neighbour's ash, which has dropped leaves all over my garden all season (I think it has anthracnose). For both these problems, the RHS advisory service advocates a process of 'good husbandry' which involves clearing up all the fallen leaves and disposing of them. So much for my laissez-faire rainforest approach. I now wonder whether being a bit of a slob encouraged these problems in the first place. Sigh.

  2. Hurray, hurray, for what you say (as well as for the photos).

    Nature, it seems, is unwelcome in some gardens.

    I have a neighbour who sweeps autumn with a dustpan and brush.

    (Which is not to say Victoria doesn't have reason to sweep away her leaves.)

    (Oh, and rightly or wrongly, I do fuss about leaves from rose bushes.)

    On the other hand, I think I'm about to start a campaign in favour of bonfires. Bonfires are essential to autumn. Never mind halloween and all that . . . bring back bonfires. You don't have to burn all the leaves, of course not, but bonfires are part of the rhythm of the season . . . there's even poetry in their favour . . .

    Esther Montgomery

  3. Having neither lawn nor borders, my naturalistic garden craves leaves - or any source of organic matter that comes its way. I do hope to rake them off the graveled areas before winter comes, but sometimes don't even get to that. Slow gardening has its appeal. Fortunately, I don't live in pristine suburban blandness, so don't have to put up with fines and the scorn of neighbors.

  4. Sorry to come back at this for a second bite - but there is an enormous physical pleasure in raking leaves, and stacking them and um . . . falling over into them.

    If anyone said "Would you like to come round and rake my leaves?" - I would probably rush there pronto - especially if the day were cold and I could wear a woolly hat and need a scarf.


  5. I think a "slow gardening" policy is great - what a good name "slow gardening" is.
    I do enjoy the fallen leaves.

  6. Yes, and if anyone's having a bonfire, I'll rush round too

  7. Hear Hear. After all, why make leaf mould and then spread it on the border if nature does the job for you in one go?

    As for the leaves now completely covering my lawn, I'll combine their collection with scarifying.

  8. I have beeen guilty of raking leaves from the borders and from the lawn. The reason - gardening experts, magazines et al advise against leaving leaves in borders as slugs and other nasties will lurk under them. I have to say though that there does seem little point in collecting the leaves to pile them up to rot and then put the mould back on the borders - presumably said slug can hide in the mulch as well!!!! Slow gardening here I come.

  9. another slow gardener here...

    love love love autumn leaves (have just been watching the local kids on the green outside our front door burying each other in the yellow leaves from the two silver birches there, with much giggling)

    hate hate hate leaf blowers, with a passion. They should be banned on oh so many grounds

    but I do lurve making leafmould. I agree with VP, it would happen without me, but there's something about opening up a 2-year-old leafmould bin and smelling that lovely woodland smell. So I'll be collecting my leaves. But with a rake. And a wooden one (well, bamboo) at that.

  10. I loved sharing your bench with your tired old tramps.

    "Slow gardening" is slowly catching on because of necessity and knowledge in my neighbourhood. The odd person who burns leaves gets a glare once reserved for expectant mothers who smoked.

  11. I remove the leaves from my lawn, the wooden decking and the paths as these last 2 could become very slippery with rotten leaves. But I leave the leaves in the borders and my veggie garden. The ones that I do rake up are turned into leafmold.

    Leaving the leaves in the borders is good for winter protection of the plants but also of the insects. I do not believe in having a winter clean for my garden, I let things be. A former neighbour used to clean her whole garden up come October and then every spring she wondered why my garden was full of ladybugs and other beneficial insects to attack the first aphids, while she had none to help her get rid of hers. And of course, in my garden the birds could find plenty to eat in Winter. :-)