By Sally Sandler. First published in Let’s Talk Plants! December 2011, No.207
Myrtus communis flowers. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
One Gardener’s Eccentric but Fruitful Plea
I must confess I’ve got a thing about leaves. Certainly the leaves on trees, plants and flowers – green ones, gold, burgundy, and silver – but also leaves that have fallen to the ground. In fact, while I enthusiastically collect various types of bulbs, succulents, and perennials, you might say I’m also a collector of leaves. Realizing this is a bit eccentric and that most Southern California gardeners rake and get rid of their fallen leaves, I wouldn’t trade this habit for anything. These fallen leaves are my garden gold. And, for that matter, so are grass clippings and vegetable leavings. I guess it’s true that “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” In my case, these leaves, grass and leftover produce are priceless. They nurture and protect my garden and ultimately feed my soul.
This habit began while as a docent/volunteer gardener at San Diego Botanic Gardens I became a mulch junkie. When the mulch gods smile upon us and deliver fresh yards of the precious dark sweet smelling stuff to our overflow parking lot, I jump for joy. However, at home in Del Mar, I’ve grown tired of paying for and hauling bags and cans of mulch to my grass-free backyard, which like many in this neck of the woods is down several staircases on a sloping hillside property. Always looking for ways to save money, I am happy to cultivate what natural mulch is already available for free right here instead.
Rather than raking leaves off my yard, I rake them on. I know they make excellent mulch, feeding the soil with their organic nutrients, blanketing plant roots, preventing weed growth and holding in moisture, even though it takes a while for them to decompose. But just observe any ancient forest and ask yourself, “Isn’t this exactly what nature had in mind?” I love that my backyard is somewhat on the wild side because of this. There’s plenty of demand for manicured gardens elsewhere, but here at home, I delight in doing the opposite, and I seek out fallen leaves to move around my yard whenever possible.
Over time I’ve discovered certain leaves are definitely better than others. My Gold Medallion trees, Cassia leptophylla, make excellent mulch. The leaves are small, decompose quickly and are available in bulk when the trees go semi-dormant in the summer. I’ve discovered that the top deck of my grandson’s play structure is a hidden treasure chest of just this sort of garden gold. Today I climbed up there and repurposed buckets of leaves to scatter in piles elsewhere in the landscape. I watch my Ornamental Plum trees, Prunus cerasifera and wait for them to drop their rich burgundy leaves in the fall. These I can spread a distance under and around the various shrubs and roses nearby. My Tree Fern leaves, Dicksonia antarctica, are terrific. And yes, I’ve even been known to bring home a burlap bag of leaves from the Botanic Garden. For example, common Myrtle, Myrtus communis, growing in the Herb Garden makes terrific leaf mulch and smells good, too. These borrowed leaves are a real bonus but come at a small price: my Subaru Outback has spider webs in the rear cabin spaces.
On the other hand, some leaves just don’t make the cut. At SDBG, the leaves of the Mysore Fig, Ficus mysorensis, in the Herb Garden are despicable. They take years to decompose, create an eyesore in the meantime, and are my nemesis as the volunteer caretaker of that space. Rotting leaves under a scented geranium are not much good either. Yellowing strappy leaves from Lily of the Nile, Agapanthus africanus, and trimmings from Bird of Paradise, Strelitzea reginae, are definitely wrong and beg for removal.
My reputation as a homeowner has taken a slight beating from my collecting habit. I believe I’ve become “that woman”—you know, the cranky one, like the much maligned librarian of old who warned, “No talking in the library,” but instead beseeches of the arborist trimming my trees, “Please don’t take my leaves.” This is anathema to most of the paid grass cutters in the neighborhood. They do a first rate and very necessary job maintaining and cutting grass, but are prone to raking the bare ground to its death. My friend deplores the fact that her ground is rock solid and nothing will grow there. For some reason, she is not persuaded by my lecture about how her gardener has raked and removed all that is organic and good for creating soil. Nature would like to feed her earth, I tell her, but alas, the gardeners won’t allow it. Cleanliness probably ranks right up there next to godliness as far as they’re concerned, so I’m letting that argument drop for now.
Did I mention that I also collect grass clippings? Indeed, I maintain a supply of black plastic trash bags in my car and when Monday morning comes I am not opposed to stopping at a neighbor’s house and in my broken Spanish asking the gardeners to deposit the grass clippings in my bag. Usually they are delighted, though exactly what it is that they say to one another in Spanish after I leave, Heaven only knows. For me this is like trick or treating on Halloween, only better. These clippings have transformed the soil in my raised planter boxes. Whereas it can quickly become used up, dried out dirt, a thick layer of grass clippings mixed in and mulched on top in those boxes is the first step in restoring the water holding capacity, turning the dirt to dark soil, and improving the texture immeasurably. I read that healthy soil should resemble and feel like chocolate brownies crumbled in your hand. (But who would do that with brownies, really??!) After a thick blanket of grass clippings, mine is much closer to that description.
And, yes, my husband and I save even the tiniest of fruit and vegetable leavings for our small but mighty barrel tumbler composter. Doesn’t that feel just so virtuous? Making compost is akin to making a stew: you add a bunch of things to the pot, and when you have the right mix, those red worms appear, it truly smells savory sweet in there, and everything turns to just the right dark, albeit heavy organic mixture my garden hungers for.
In my past life—the one in which I wore designer suits to work each day—I lingered around places like Nordstrom and the mall for pleasure and relaxation. Now I’m delighted to stand at the foot of my backyard stairs and gaze at the piles of leaves and grass that stay back there. They aren’t budging as long as I am sentinel. For the most part my satisfaction comes from the things I believe I can grow, from looking forward to spring, from the earthworms, the bright happy blooms, the reduced need to water... and, well, you know the rest.