Autumn Leaves: Please please don't dump me!

It’s that time of year again. Nights are longer. The days shorter. And getting out of bed is becoming more and more difficult.

Autumn is here.

But before we start looking forward to the start of Spring by hunkering down under a duvet and a hot water bottle, we could celebrate Nature’s Bounty.

As a grumpy child at boarding school in Queenstown (I still shiver when I think of the wind coming down into town from the Winterberg), I remember the harvest service at our local church.

Autumn is a bountiful time. The crops are in. The naartjie's ready. The pumpkins large (and in some cases monstrous).

But another bounty awaits. Leaves.

Every year they fill up our gardens, verges and streets. It’s so nice that Autumn is also called “Fall”.

Now if you’re managing British Rail this always seems to be a surprise. Who knew that rail transport can be delayed because of “leaves on the tracks”?

Autumn is a wonderful regenerative time; the season when trees harvest themselves.


The leaves lying in swathes along the ground become, over the Winter, a nutrient source to assist the Spring growth. These leaves, full of minerals which have been mined over the Summer, are broken down by macro and micro-organisms while importantly providing the matrix for fungi growth.

We know this as “leaf mould”. A wonderful crumbly dark substance which can be used as a mulch, lawn dressing and fantastic soil amendment. Good leaf mould can hold up to 500 per cent of its own weight in water - a fantastic benefit up here in the dry Highveld winter.

This magical substance is easy to make. The first is to simply bag it, water it and then poke some holes in the bag and store it for Spring. The other method is to rake it into your beds. And let nature do what it does best - let the fungi, bacteria and other wonderful little worms, sow bugs and other critters start doing their shredding and decomposing work.

What’s the difference between compost and leaf mould? Making compost is a hot process: one piles the organic material and then periodically turns in order to generate heat through adding oxygen. Compost utilises bacteria to do the work. Making leaf mould is a cold process and relies on fungi for decomposition.

Compost is fast. Leaf mould is slow. But there are advantages to slow. Hot composting tends to use up energy while a cold process retains more energy.

However, both are wonderful substances. Both are good for your soil. And both avoid the need to send valuable material to landfill.

Driving around my neighbourhood in Autumn is both exhilarating and depressing. Exhilarating to see nature at work. Depressing when we see a hard working gardener diligently raking out all the organic material from the beds (and inadvertently creating agapanthus crowned sand castles).

Soil needs to be nurtured. And the best way to nurture it is to not dig it up and follow nature’s lessons: mulch, compost and leave organic matter where it falls.

So this Autumn, when the leaves start falling, take advantage of this bounty. Rake it up. Add it to your beds. Bag it. Above all don’t throw it away. Or, as we often see, rake it into the storm water drain.


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