Leaf-raking, the right way

Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist November 22, 2011

In the continuum of leaf raking, one end is marked by the neatnik who is not satisfied until every last speck of fallen foliage is out of the yard and mounded at the curb. His idea of hell? A windstorm.

At the other end stands, or slouches, the slob. His credo: Nature made this mess, nature can clean it up.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

Nature, incidentally, does clean it up. The microbes will gobble up the detritus, eventually, though not when or where the neatnik would like.

Neither person is thinking like a gardener. Leaves are pure gold, the best ingredient in the long-term and noble effort of building up the soil. It’s just that the enterprise requires some on-site rearrangement of the goods.

Raking works, even leaf blowing if you must, but the easiest approach is to use a lawn mower. A mower will shred leaves in place, allowing them to break down quickly. I like to use the leaves as a soil mulch, so I gather them in the mower bag, and spread them amid the shrinking perennials or under trees. The more they are shredded, the more rapid the conversion into beautiful organic matter. Decaying leaves nourish the mostly invisible soil life essential to plant health.


Fall leaves are a friend to plants. (Adrian Higgins/THE WASHINGTON POST)

If you have too many leaves, start a compost pile, which will break down over the winter for spring use.

You want to tidy up some leaves for the sake of the plants. The spores of fungal diseases and the eggs of pests spend the winter nestled in fallen leaves. If your rose had blackspot or your black eyed Susans leaf spot septoria, get that old foliage out of there and trash it. The same goes for vegetable beds where the tomato plants were marred by blight, or the legumes were lousy with bean beetles.

But most leaves are our friends, and here’s the wonderful bit: They are available at an optimum time for soil work. You may think this absurd, sated as you are with food and drink and thinking about how George Washington met his end, out in the December rain. But really, the earth can be attended to until it freezes, in about a month hereabouts.

Put down a couple of inches of leaf mulch now and let the worms and all do their work in the months ahead. Better yet, turn the soil with a garden fork to incorporate the leaves. You can pull the weeds as you work it. Weeds?

I was strolling through the community garden the other day and was struck by how the winter weeds this season have gotten such a foothold already. This is due to the mildness and dampness of the fall. In plots where the owners had mistakenly believed the garden year to be over, whole carpets of chickweed, henbit and bittercress had taken hold. The weeds stay low to the ground in the winter, developing a robust root system. As the weather warms in March, they rocket off the launch pad and burst into flower. By then it is too late.

Fair-weather gardeners emerge at that point for what they think is a dreamy morning of spring preparation, only to find a deep-rooted forest of henbit smothering all. After hours of toil, their faces are still full of sorrow and anguish. If only they had worked the garden in November, and perhaps again on a mild day in January or February.

I think the chickweed is the worst this year: I pulled one with a root system several inches long just a month after germinating. It is also tricky to pull — yank it, and the top will come away but the rest remains. This is why digging it out is so efficient as you dig in the leaves.

If you don’t want to go to that trouble, just lay the leaves down on your garden beds. Hoe the weeds first, though. The leaf blanket would only coddle them.

Leaves fall just once a year, and we should seize them. Weeds require continual vigilance. An enriched and weed-free garden is rare and beautiful, but quite attainable if you are hardy and stubborn enough.

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