By MK Martin
Unpopular opinion: Every stage of life is beautiful. Every year the inevitable panoply of frilly, autumn leaves begins. Its confetti like their snowflake cousins, no two displays alike. It is something I look forward to, and other homeowners seem to dread.
While I sip coffee from my back door, eyeing the seed progress, thinking of how I might find room to grow squash next year, watching the bunchy adolescent squirrels from the next door eaves eagerly cram whatever they think is food into the ground, my neighbours are arming themselves. Arming themselves against the enemy of leaf litter and general disarray. It is their duty to contain the fearsome consequence of decay by Any Means Necessary.
Usually a leaf blower.
Daytime collar wearers arrive home, attach their arsenal to their backs, pull-cord or electrically powered or even Dyson, they all line up to mechanically blow the leavings of the trees around them off their grass. If each leaf detonated on impact, I could imagine the urgency one might have in removing them. There is some wisdom behind fall leaf cleanup: leaves can transmit blights to soil, and too many covering your grass overwinter can lead to snow moulds. However, your trees are not dropping their leaves for no reason. A layer is meant to provide moisture and a winter blanket for resting roots, while insects and fungi break down the leaf matter to feed them.
Flowers are similarly ripped up on schedule, before October comes to a close. Echinacea cropped to the quick, vines ripped up and cleared away, leaving each parallelogram somewhat like a Who house in the Grinch’s wake. Blank slates, whispering: there used to be life here.
Tree leaves are at their most nutrient dense right when they fall. Each has its own pH balance and some, like ash, are much higher in pH and nitrogen. The leaves of black walnut and eucalyptus contain natural herbicides that can keep seeds from germinating. Keeping caveats in mind, it’s easy to create your own mulch with fallen leaves and grass clippings, by shredding them with your lawn mower. If you have a reel mower like ours, this is pretty good resistance training. It only takes a few passes with a mechanized push mower, and the resulting mulch is perfect for your soil’s winter slumber.
By contrast, and to the chagrin of each of my neighbours, fat brown zinnia seed heads wobble in the breezes of the last days of Autumn in front of our house, receiving frost, snow, rain and warm afternoons, sometimes all in the same day. The yarrow’s withered leaves look like black teeth where their green feathers used to be, grinning, wilting. The drapey sweet pea ropes having yet to give up, still defiantly green next to a yellow rosebush laden with fat red rosehips. Just one makes a tart sweet pot of tea for days.
In the back, morning glory skeletons lace through a laid bare lattice, seeds resembling hazelnuts hanging precariously over the soil; kamikaze pilots asleep until next spring. The massive hydrangea, adrift with snowballs in the summer, now sports skeletal flowerheads, each tiny petal a tiny example of the finest lacework. These are particularly comfortable to the lingering songbirds on windy days, where they dine on seeds from other plants left behind.
Learning to recognize the beauty in this chaos has taken work. Our yard sticks out like a lush, floral green thumb next to annual petunias and perfectly contained peonies. We can understand. The human desire to contain, redesign, reconstruct is powerful, and countless hours reading garden design books can muddle the best course of action. Which, in winter, can simply be to remain at rest.