Charley’s Garden “Heralds of winter drift by my window”

fall-leaves-blowing1BY CHARLEY UNDERWOOD

On the window over our kitchen sink, my wife has taped some particularly colorful fall leaves.  This is somewhat remarkable since she is a native Minnesotan with a deep dread of winter that people from other climes simply don’t have.  Those who grew up here know that winter can and does kill. No matter how much they participate in hockey or skiing, they keep a healthy respect for winter. So it is that changing leaves are often met with alarm that our fleeting summer is nearly over.  It is just a bit surprising that she would take such obvious delight in leaves whose color signals a change of seasons.  For many, a change for the worse.
That’s only a part of the cycle, of course.  The leaves that were once green and are now scarlet or blaze orange will soon be brown, covering our lawns and choking our storm sewers.  The season of raking is upon us; we see it all around.
What are those brown leaves to you, I wonder.  Are they an afternoon’s blisters when you could have been watching that game?  Are they that quick, clandestine sweep of leaves into the streets in the night hours after the city street-cleaning signs have gone up?
For me, leaves are a resource, not refuse.  It is part of the cycle.
We might think of leaves as this amazing factory that takes sunlight and water and carbon dioxide and converts it all into absolutely everything we need: air to breathe, shelter, food, even clothing.  When winter is coming, the leaf becomes a liability, a bunch of pores that would bleed moisture and heat from the plant.  So the plant gets rid of them and grows new leaves when the weather warms again.  But the work of the dead leaves is not finished.
People used to burn their fall leaves, turning them into air pollution.  Some people still rake their leaves into the streets, adding to the nitrogen loading of our lakes and rivers, resulting in algae blooms and eventually a huge dead part of the Gulf of Mexico just south of New Orleans.  Not good ideas.
Why not use those leaves to make compost instead?  Made into compost, leaves help all sorts of soils.  Heavy clay soils get broken up by compost and take on nutrients needed for every sort of plant growth.  Sandy soils hold moisture better with a little compost mixed in.  There are several ways to turn leaves into compost.
The easiest and most efficient is to run over the leaves with a composting lawn mower, turning leaves into tiny bits of organic fertilizer.  By doing this, you completely eliminate the need for purchased fertilizer from the store.  And it’s free and it’s easy.
The next easiest way of dealing with leaves is to bag them (in compostable bags, now required by state law) and have the city haul them off on your trash day.  The city will then compost your leaves for you and deliver the resulting compost to community gardens all over the city.
For me, however, the very best way to deal with leaves is to compost them right on my own property and mix that rich, black gold with my garden soil the next spring.  If you have a mower that chops up the leaves and shoots them into a bag, you can simply dump that bag into your backyard compost pile and the compost will be ready by next spring.  If you rake the leaves by hand and put them in the pile, it may take up a bit more space and a bit more time, but you will still have created a treasure out of your trash.  Your garden will thank you for it by growing bright green foliage and healthy produce and flowers.
Years ago I had a neighbor who injected the soil with a poison to kill a boulevard tree, simply because it produced a lot of leaves in the fall.  How sad!  It is just a different way of thinking, I suppose.  He viewed those leaves as a bother, whereas I view leaves as a boon.  If you use those leaves to amend your soil, your soil gets richer every year.  If you take that nutrition off your property, the soil will keep getting more and more depleted as the years go by.  It is your choice.
Instead of a calendar this month, I am going to suggest just a single event.  The Edina Library has a presentation by one of the Hennepin County Master Gardeners titled “Using mulches from yard waste materials.”  It is between 2 and 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 1.  The library is located at 5280 Grandview Square, Edina.  Reservations are required by calling 612-543-6325 or going to http://www.hclib.org/pub/events/. It is the next step.

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