About this time of year I fantasise about domesticating super possums that can be trained to eat the deciduous leaves of any tree around the house before they fall and clog up the gutters.
This winter, finally, we are going to get gutter guards, though we still haven't worked out the best kind to buy - nor will it entirely solve the problem. Gutter guards or 'toppers' need maintenance too, as leaves can form a lovely decaying mess over the guard and so stop your gutter from carrying away the water in a deluge. We will also still have few million leaves elsewhere to deal with.
Autumn leaves are sneaky. Garden maintenance would be much simpler if they'd just fall in a neat circle around their tree, say on the first Friday of winter. Instead they blow into lines along fences, or into the shed if you've left the door open, making perfect nesting/hiding places for rats, mice and snakes. We put up a trampoline last year, then discovered that a trampoline with a high safety net makes the most excellent container for autumn leaves. Luckily collecting autumn leaves from a trampoline involves much bouncing and other fun.
The best autumn leaf gatherer I've yet to find is the old-fashioned bamboo rake, flexible and light enough to cope with uneven ground. Metal rakes are not only heavy, but can scrape the ground below. Metal rakes are excellent for smoothing the ground before planting carrots, but not so good at raking up material on top of it. Bamboo rakes also allow you to build up quite a high pile of leaves as you rake.
Bamboo rakes are especially useful to remove leaves from ornamental stone mulches or a gravelled garden or path without taking the gravel with it. If the leaves have begun to decompose into the stones though, you'll need to remove the gungy ones by hand.
If you have paving a firm straw broom is the quickest way to sweep leaves into a pile. A special 'garden broom', with especially stiff bristles, can also be better that any rake for removing leaves from verandas, patios and sheds, even gravel.
You now have one of the best resources possible for a garden: autumn leaves.
Our autumn leaves are usually just piled around our trees in a wide circle to encourage root growth. The mulch softens the soil, and the soil's micro life gradually converts the organic matter so that next summer it will be richer in nutrients and have better moisture holding ability. The young trees get the first serving, and after that the shallow rooted trees like citrus, whose leaves yellow or even drop dead if they dry out in summer heat.
A layer of dried leaves is also fun for hens to scratch around in - throw in a new lot every week or so, then in spring rake out the manure-enriched debris.
You might also try:
Layer leaves, garden waste like old lettuce or corn stalks and manure or organic fertiliser. Water, and leave till spring. You will have lovely piles of fertilising mulch to feed the garden.
Mobile Garden Rings
Make a wide circle from chook netting, then place it where you'd like a temporary garden. Fill it with layers of autumn leaves and a scattering of some good organic fertiliser or hen manure. Leave till spring. The leaves will break down till you have a small, fertile patch where you can plant potatoes, a tomato plant, climbing peas or climbing beans - anything that needs staking or support. Ring beds are also excellent for any plant that grows better with layer after layer of mulch over its stem, like potatoes.
Ring gardens are great for kids. Give each kid their own tiny garden, and choice of what grows in it. They can see the growth of 'their' plant far more easily than in a general garden, and harvest more easily too.
Autumn leaves are so valuable that avid garners have been known not just to rake the footpath, but to sneak next door and harvest the neighbour's leaf crop too. Depending on their point of view, the neighbours then wake up to find either their leaf problem tidied by a team of garden elves, or their summer mulch stolen by a mob of leaf thieves. Given Canberra's glorious tree cover, if you see a leaf-strewn garden and covet the mulch potential, leave a polite note in the letter box, asking if you can rake the resource up.
There are three things you should not do with autumn leaves. The first is burn them - the Earth is hot and polluted enough without using the magnificent resource of autumn leaves to add to our problems. The next is to use a leaf blower. Leaf blowers are heavier than a rake and annoyingly noisy. They only give the illusion of saving time and labour, though they can be a comfort to gardeners who want to be seen as 'homo sapiens the tool user' instead of being content with the rakes and brooms whose design has been perfected over thousands of years to clean up grass and gravel.
The third, and most essential autumn leaf law is not to be obsessive about them. While a thick layer of autumn leaf clag will kill the grass below, a light scattering will do no harm at all. On the contrary, a few scattered leaves will decompose and help feed your lawn as well as keep its soil in good condition. They also help provide material for birds' nests. You can also speed up the decomposition by mowing them - the shredding will help stop leaves blowing away, too.
Forget the cliché of a lawn like a green carpet, featureless and immaculate. Reframe your view of 'lawn' to include a few fallen leaves, some lawn daisies, possibly a dandelion or two, as well as grass that sometimes grows long enough to seed, to feed seed-loving birds. A garden is a gloriously changing, evolving entity. Trying to keep it like a landscape gardener's portrait will only give you backache - and possible a headache too.
This week I am:
- Possibly planting poppy seed. Scatter seed on top of moist soil, and never dig it in.
- Waiting for the next autumn leaf drop, or rather, the first winter leaf drop, as different trees drop at different times.
- Wondering if the medlars have been 'bletted' or softened enough by the frost yet to make medlar jelly (possibly not).
- Wandering around the camellias as bush after bush begins to bloom.
- Digging up Jerusalem artichoke tubers.
- Moving the potted coffee bushes to different sunny spots in the house to find the warmest and brightest.