"Under the leaves"

Raking autumn leaves from my garden beds, I discovered some nice surprises.
Sunday, 03 June 2012        

Leaves from Liquidambar styraciflua in my garden in late autumn

I love the look of fallen autumn leaves, giving a colourful seasonal cloak to the garden as they flutter onto lawns, borders and paths, but even I have to concede that there comes a time when they need to be raked up - especially when they start to become matted and slippery after rain such as we have experienced this weekend. Smaller leaves - such as those from the crepe myrtle and Japanese maples - can be raked up and put directly around shrubs and larger perennials, where they will break down over time to form a nutritious layer of humus for the soil. Larger leaves, however - like the ones from my huge Liquidambar tree (pictured) - get put through a shredder onto our compost heap. The ones that fall onto garden beds can start to suffocate small plants, as I have discovered this past week.

I have just purchased a sturdy miniature rake (actually intended for children) for the purpose of gently combing these leaves from various plants in nearby garden beds that have been choked in recent weeks. My paternal grandmother - of very slight build - used a set of such children's garden tools her entire life; and our large rake is unsuitable for getting in between dense plantings. Under the leaves, I discovered all sorts of activity going on, which made me feel guilty for not having got rid of them sooner.

In one area, I found the buds of a Helleborus foetidus forming. This was exciting, as it is the first time this particular hellebore has been mature enough to bloom. It finely dissected leaves and flowers like bunches of small green cups. I have had a gold-leaved version ('Gold Bullion') for a few years so it is nice to also have the plain green-leaved one as well. These hellebores do reasonably well in Sydney's climate in sun or part shade, and provide welcome winter flowers that last for ages throughout winter and into early spring. Where they are happy, they will self-seed - which is a good thing as the original plant will probably only last a few years.

Further along in the same garden bed I found little shoots of snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum) poking through - again covered with a layer of leaves, so I cleared these away in a hurry. These are a cultivar called 'Gravetye Giant' that I was given by a friend years ago - they grow taller than the usual species and have a larger flower. There were also jonquil leaves starting to peep through the earth: one bulb even seems to have a flower bud on it already.

Elsewhere I uncovered seedlings of self-sown spring annuals that were being engulfed by leaves, and I don't think they would have survived much longer under this blanket. I love these 'volunteer' plants that turn up every year, as I don't deliberately plant many annuals any more. Some of those that I found were seedlings of the white-flowered variegated-leaf form of honesty (Lunaria annua); the delightfully ferny-foliage Orlaya grandiflora, which is like a small version of Queen Anne's lace; tiny forget-me-not seedlings (Myosotis sylvatica); and hundreds of delicate baby plants of love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), which all originate from one single plant I was given a few years ago. I usually thin out all these seedlings, heartbreaking though it is, so that those which remain can grow robustly. I do try to remember to give them an occasional dose of liquid fertiliser to help them develop.

Come spring, when my bulbs and annuals bloom, I will be glad I got busy with my little rake in autumn!

 Reader Comments

1/8  Heinie - South Africa Monday, 04 June 2012

I have a few very large trees in the yard that I normally spread the fallen leaves all over the established parts of the garden. The leaves must be a good 150mm thick of mulch by now. I love a leaf mulch especially when they start composting from the regular water from the automatic sprinklers. The leaves are a great source of compost. Fallen leaves stay under the larger shrubs and the trees in my garden; it is mainly the smaller plants that I need to be careful of so that they don"t get smothered. Deirdre

2/8  Lyn - 2565 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 04 June 2012

I bought a kids garden set, initially for grandson and I have used them every day! My jonquils flowered very early this year, started about 6 wks ago. Don"t you love surprise finds? I found 2 Hoya cuttings that had rooted in pots under the trees, totally forgotten all about them. Love leaf mulch! Glad to hear someone else is using kids" gardening tools! Yes, it is great to find surprises in the garden. I have seen quite a few jonquils flowering in our suburb already this year. Deirdre

3/8  Tim - 6027 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 04 June 2012

A well known trick is to use a lawnmower to damage the leaf, just enough to allow microbes to start the breakdown process. If Eucalypt leaves, a table spoon of Urea & wetting agent mixed into a 10 litre watering will help break the leaves down into soil, great for high fire risk areas. Thanks for these good tips, Tim.

4/8  Catherine - 2071 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 04 June 2012

What a great tip, thanks! I"ve got bromeliad and liriope covered with claret ash leaves & have already managed to pull one brom out of the ground trying to rake them off with a normal-sized grass rake. Did you buy this kid"s rake from a nursery? Yes, just got it at a local nursery - they had a collection of different tools for kids and this one seems well made, with a metal end securely affixed to the wooden handle. I am sure most large nurseries would stock similar tools. There is also another great rake I have seen being used by other gardeners that can be changed to have a large or smaller end, by pushing a bar across the prongs. Deirdre

5/8  Keith - 2066 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 04 June 2012

Looking for a childs rake I came across an adjustable fan rake. The head can be adjusted from 20 - 48 cm so does a great job between plants . Best of all has a full length handle to save the aching back. It was at Bunnings and cost 9.98. Keith Thanks for that tip - it sounds just like the one I have seen people using but was not able to find when I went looking at the nursery. Deirdre

6/8  Richard - 2112 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 04 June 2012

I gather my liquidambar leaves on the lawn, mow quite finely, & deposit into compost bins to turn into good quality leaf mould. I also bag some leaves and during the warmer months put a fine layer on the lawn each time I mow so I get a 50/50 mix carbon/nitrogen & don"t have to layer my compost! They are all good ideas for using the leaves in the garden. They certainly do break down to form wonderful compost. Deirdre

7/8  Rosemary - 2750 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 05 June 2012

Love the Autumn leaves also. Remember they are full of wonderful minerals and goodness deposited in them from the very deep root system of trees foraging down amongst the deeper soils and subsequently deposited fluttering down on top of our garden hows that for recycling! They really are a great resource for our gardens - I just need to control the huge volume that fall from my liquidambar onto surrounding gardens, so I find shredding them into the compost heap the best option. Deirdre

8/8  Bronwyn - 4061 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 06 June 2012

I also love the look of the red and golden tones of the fallen autumn leaves and totally agree they need to be raked up. The mulched Liquidamber tree leaves are great compost material. Yes they make wonderful compost. We already have a huge pile of mulched-up material, which has attracted the interest of two brush turkeys, who seem to regard it as a ready-made nest for them! Deirdre

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