The first week in December we collected many bushels of leaves from the street, blown there by a leaf-blowing machine, and dumped them in specific places.
First, a generous supply (about a foot of dry oak leaves, which will soon settle to four inches) went about the few tender plants in the garden.
Some went around Dasylirion texanum, which does not like either cold or damp and which is not suited to this climate. I fidget with it a bit for the sake of its three-foot spiny-toothed leathery leaves -- like a skinny recurving yucca.
Others went around two "hardy" palms, one from Korea, Trachycarpus fortunei, a fan-leaved palm that grows with irksome slowness. I have grown it in a garden where one winter it stood 12 degrees below zero without harm, not even a burning of the foliage. On the other hand I have had damage to the leaves in winters in which the lowest temperature was 10 above zero.
The other palm, Rhapidophyllum hystrix, also a fan palm (that is, with leaves you can make fans of, as distinct from a feather palm, which is plumelike, as in coconut palms) that grows more rapidly with me. Mine is about 45 inches high and has a couple of offsets. Even at this small size it has twice flowered and fruited, though the seeds did not sprout when sown.
Apart from the leaf mulch, these two plants are shielded from winter wind by a band of burlap three feet high. I do not cover the tops.
Most of the leaves went along a row of shrubs, Viburnums such as V. juddi, which has pink tennis balls of flower in spring; V. wrightii, with inconspicuous flowers but red berries and leaves in early fall; V. setigerum, famous for its hanging clusters of scarlet berries in September; and V. plicatum 'Mariesii,' which blooms with the dogwoods and is equally showy with its horizontal branches of dazzling white bracts.
None of these needs protection. I give them a heavy mulch of oak leaves only because they flourish in the leaf mold, and because I give them no other fertilizer.
The same is true of the hollies, azaleas, wild American clematis, wild American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens alba), Euonymus alata, Chinese-Japanese witch hazel, a couple of barberries and a dwarf Japanese maple. All of them seem to delight in open woodland conditions beneath a large oak and a large swamp maple, both of them pruned free of branches 25 feet above the ground so a good bit of sun gets in.
The maple is one that turns from rich deep green to salmon-scarlet- crimson-purple if it feels like it. Three years in four it colors half-heartedly because sharp cold catches it before the coloring process is complete. It never begins to color till Thanksgiving.
But one year in four the fall is kind, as this year, when the maple is at its best in early December. It colors more richly and brilliantly on the north side than the south, which I consider odd, but then I do not know the customs of maples. I bought it some years ago as a seedling in a can from a Pennsylvania nursery. It was half price because its grower said it never colored.
Both hollies and bamboos are now in their greatest glory of the year. It is too early for the leaves to be burned by severe cold. Of the bamboos I have grown the most beautiful was sold to me from Georgia as Phyllostachys henonis, and the right name is probably P. nigra henonis. Its great virtue was that the new culms rose up straight as an arrow, and the old ones bent toward the earth. Like most bamboos, it takes perhaps eight years to start showing its true elegance, and although it is a "clump" bamboo, it spreads by underground roots and takes much space. The clump bamboos simply do not spread as rapidly as the running bamboos, but they still spread.
They are easily enough controlled if the new shoots in late spring are given a sharp cut with the hoe, but this has to be done once every year, otherwise they get out of hand.
The only bamboos I now have are Sinarundinaria nitida, gift of a Baltimore friend, and the quite uncommon Shibataea kumasasa, which I found at a garden center. The first is notable mainly for its slender foliage and restrained growth to about 14 feet in height.
The other, a great favorite of mine, is usually thought of as three feet high, but when fully pleased with its site it reaches seven feet as mine has done. That is disconcerting if you were counting on the lower height. Also disconcerting is its decision to spread when fully satisfied with conditions. Mine has crept out, admittedly in a delicate refined way, a good 15 feet, though it is generally considered unlikely to do such a thing. Its slender stems, no thicker than coat hanger wire, are easily cut down with hedge shears, but I see it has crossed a path underground and is coming up in azaleas. All that's necessary is to cut the offending expansionist shoots to the ground, but it's one more thing to do. Only a plant of uncommon beauty justifies these goings-on to lazy gardeners like me.
It's not short of outrageous that gardeners bag their leaves for the city trucks to pick up at taxpayer expense. Everyone should save all the leaves. There are numerous schemes for turning them into compost, but even if they are just dumped in a great pile in some out-of-the-way spot, they soon rot and can be spread as the most valuable of all manures.
One year I had no further space for a compost pile and simply piled them four feet high in two beds that were temporarily empty. The following August I planted tall bearded irises in those beds, which had settled unbelievably. Although irises always did extremely well in that garden, they never again had quite the same luster as in the first two years after they were planted in almost solid leaf mold.
Another way to use the leaves is simply to spread them right on the ground five inches or so thick. Where I grow tomatoes, my pitiful eight or 10 plants (which all the same produced 200 pounds of tomatoes this year), I spread leaves on top in the fall, and especially in the shallow trenches between the slightly raised mounds the tomatoes grow on. Among other things, it cuts down on weeds in the summer.