In Praise of Fallen Leaves

Fall is coming. That’s okay. I love fallen leaves! I love looking at them, I love crunching in them and I love USING them!

Coming from Saskatchewan, the leaves fall off most everything. Maybe that is why so many of us “from away” want only evergreens in our home landscapes. Oh wait!  Lots of people who were born here want the same.  

With such a huge selection of evergreen trees, shrubs, and plants available, and with perceived lower maintenance, it is truly tempting. Fallen leaves can be a LOT of work. But there’s something to be said for it happening “all at once” rather than the ongoing shower of cones, needles, interior leaves, etc. that fall from our evergreen trees and shrubs.

And there are loads of other considerations… So here’s my case for fallen leaves:

Colour!

How can we do without the fabulous colours our turning leaves give us in autumn? Our lovely maples (Acer japonicum and others) are a case in point, but many deciduous trees and shrubs put on a spectacular show of reds, oranges, purples, and yellows in autumn. Even blueberry shrubs can put on a gorgeous display.

Bark colour is a feature of some deciduous beauties like the coral bark maple (Acer palmaum ‘Sango Kaku’, and red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea). The peeling reddish bark of the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) adds interest long after its leaves fall.

Leafless trees and shrubs showcase winter berries and fruits.  And it makes it easier for you to watch birds enjoy the fruits and berries.  Consider plants like hawthorns (Crataegus sp.), roses (Rosa sp.), and berberis (in a wide variety of sizes and colours).

Form and texture!

Some plants actually look better with their clothes off — or at least as good as they did with them on.  Cases in point:

  • The contorted hazelnut aka “Harry Lauder’s walking stick” (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’).  You can check out an established specimen at the Comox Marina — by the childrens’ playground/parking area.  Beautiful!
  • Our amazing Garry oaks (Quercus garryana).  Check out the winter beauty of the one by the RCMP detachment on Ryan Road — just up the hill from Canadian Tire.  It might be difficult to fit one of these giants into the home landscape, but if you have the space…
  • Some of of deciduous azaleas have a natural “bonsai” form that is attractive summer and winter.

Light!

Deciduous trees can give us the best of both worlds — shade in the heat of summer and light in our grey winters.  Of course, this has economic impact — reflected in our utility bills — as well as aesthetic impact.  Consider this when you plan or renew your landscape.  

Snow loading

It’s not easy being green — when you are heaped with snow and ice!  Deciduous trees and shrubs won’t collapse as readily under the weight of heavy winter snows.  How many of us have been out in the worst winter storms, knocking the snow off our sagging evergreens?  I have!

A visual rest from unrelieved green!

I love green, but a person can only take so much.  

And most of all… your garden will love them!  

Leaves are a great soil amendment.  Many of us pay for manure, fish compost or other soil amendments every year.  Fallen leaves are a nutrient rich, free resource.  They are what nature intended to feed our plants.  In healthy soils, they release nutrients at just the right rate.  

Leaves can help protect the soil from compaction in our heavy rains.  They provide protection from freezing and frost heave.  Leaves make a home for beneficial microbes, fungi and such — the good guys that help our plants thrive.  And they help our soils hang onto moisture.  

Leaves are like soil superheroes.  They can help our soils become the living, breathing ecosystems they were before humans disturbed the natural cycle and changed soil into dry, sterile dirt.  Great soil = great garden.  All because of fallen leaves!

So think about making use of your leaves!  Collect your leaves and run them through your mulching mower into the bagger. You can add them to your compost heap, top dress special trees and shrubs, or make a leaf mould pile for use next spring. If your neighbours don’t want their leaves, scoop them up. Your rhodos will love you for it!  

Take care though:  

  • Fallen leaves and lawns don’t mix.  Our lawns are trying to grow in the fall and winter. Rake leaves off your lawn OR mulch them regularly on the lawn. Don’t let too thick a layer build up either way.
  • Dispose of any rose leaves or trimmings. These provide a place for black spot to overwinter.
  • Leaves of any diseased plant should not be used in the garden.
  • Mulch after plants are dormant. Don’t smother perennials. An inch or two is usually okay (often more). Be sure to uncover your plantings as spring weather arrives.
  • **Don’t mulch (or topdress) close to the trunks of trees or shrubs.  It can lead to rot.
  • Very large leaves like those from bigleaf maples can create an impenetrable barrier unless they are shredded before use.

Have a look around this fall and winter and see what appeals to you.  Your next great plant might not be evergreen!

(I used tree examples from Comox/Courtenay because I haven’t gotten the lay of the land in Parksville/Qualicum yet. But I will. Cheers!)

Check out my website at yourgardener.webs.com

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