This Year's Leaves, Next Year's Compost

I love this time of year:  the earth is still holding on to summer’s heat, but the cool winds start to blow in (some people call this “sweater weather”).  It begins to feel crisp without being too cold; the garden shifts from giving us tomatoes and beans to crisp kale and fresh salad greens; and the leaves – oh! the leaves – gold, pumpkin, crimson, deep purple and all hues in between.  I like to think the trees put those colors out to warm us up before the cold of winter sets in.  As I rake and collect leaves, I think I like them just as much on the ground as I do on the trees.  The shapes and colors blended together create a color palette and textural array that no designer could come close to duplicating.  So you can see why I love this time of year; but, the best part is what they will become.

Many folks see trees dropping their leaves as a mess to clean up, but I see them as a gift to the garden.  All of those fallen leaves, once collected and piled up, have the entire winter to start the decomposition process, all spring to soak up rain and be turned, the summer to spend cooking and, by the following fall, they are just what the garden needs to reclaim organic matter, soil structure and a nice warm blanket for the roots that lie below.  I had a conversation with the kindest lady the other day – a long time gardener, her yard was pristine.  As we said good-bye at the street she resumed the raking of her honey locust leaves.  I remarked that I had found a new appreciation for the rich golden hue offered by honey locusts, and the gentle dappled shade they provide through the summer.  She agreed, then added, “but they’re messy.”  I smiled and waved, and as I walked away I thought, “but that’s awesome!  What if they kept their leaves and we had none to make compost and put back into our gardens?”

Just last week at the Civic Garden Center we worked on a project to restore a wildflower area within the Hauck Botanic Garden.  In cooperation with the Wild Ones of Greater Cincinnati, we are removing invasive plants that have overtaken this area and will eventually replace them with desirable native species to showcase our regional flora.  The Wild Ones helped procure 1800 pounds of cardboard and 60 yards of aged leaf compost that was laid down in the wildflower area to prevent the unwanted plants from returning, and to prepare the soil for plantings next year.  The leaf compost came from a local municipality’s yearly collection, and was harvested just before this year’s leaves were added.  Several people remarked on how beautiful the composted leaves were (I could tell they would love to have put them in their own gardens), and now that they are down, the area already looks like a well-tended garden!  Lately I’ve had a hard time avoiding clichés, but I have to admit this is the ultimate form of recycling and reusing.  It’s fortunate for us that people see their trees as messy, rake them and send them off to a municipal compost pile – it’s the only way we could acquire the large amounts of leaves we need for a project like the one we’re working on; but, I do hope that more people recognize what a precious resource is lying just beneath their feet!

-Cara Hague, Horticulturist

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