One of the best things about old-school gardening advice is how it connects us, in a very direct way, with our shared heritage. However, by the same token, many practices can keep us tethered to cultural ideas that are long past their practical or even aesthetic relevance. Just like the fact that we now know the incredibly laborious Victorian practice of double-digging each autumn ironically degrades soil, reduces fertility and even releases atmospheric carbon. I think it’s high time we add ditching the slavish devotion to leaf-raking to the list of outdated practices.
The basic idea behind this traditional task is really just one of neatness, harking back to an era where regimented precision of perfect lawn stripes and rows of bedding plants like a horticultural military parade were considered a universal goal for all “good” gardeners.
Fallen leaves not only ruined the illusion of a plot under the complete control of the human hand but, it was argued, could smother garden plants under a thick blanket of rotting matter, encouraging pests and stifling growth. So gathering up this biodegradable matter, shoving it in endless plastic sacks and loading it on lorries to landfill was considered an excellent use of time and resources.
However, the scientific reality is that by doing so gardeners essentially turned trees into nutrient pumps, drawing minerals out of the ground to create their canopies each spring, then carting off these nutrients which would otherwise be returned to the soil, slowly but surely degrading its fertility.
Of course, leaves don’t just provide a free source of fertiliser, the organic fibres they are made out of also improve soil texture, helping it absorb far more water and air, which are essential for healthy plant growth. Ironically, as most plants you would grow under trees are adapted to woodland environments, not only will the vast majority be unfazed by autumnal leaf cover, but they will actively benefit from the protective layer nutrient-rich fallen leaves provide, sealing in moisture while insulating from harsh winter temperatures.
Even on lawns, scientific studies have shown that as long as about 50% of the surface remains uncovered, fallen leaves not only improve grass growth next year, but can impede the growth of weeds such as dandelions. Simply removing the excess leaves in places where they are too dense on lawns and chucking it on flower, fruit and veg borders will give you free fertiliser and soil conditioner while simultaneously slashing your workload.
So the moral of the story, much like digging, is that a little raking to clear paths or prevent the total covering of lawns can certainly have merit, but simply abandoning the chore of wholesale leaf removal not only is better for your back, but the planet, and frankly your garden, too.
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