Of course they are an asset. Just consider the rich soil of a forest. Leaves fall naturally and decompose on the forest floor, where they return nutrients for plant uptake and provide organic matter to improve soil structure. But, when leaves coat the lawn or, in my case, the patio, they can be an annoyance. A few weeks ago after I had carefully swept and raked both patios on a Saturday, the weather turned cold and windy. My husband looked out on the patio on Sunday morning and decried “You didn’t do a very good job raking the patio yesterday!” There were about 4 inches of leaves covering the entire surface. Haha – grit teeth. He was kidding, of course, but the chore still required repeating, so — annoyance!
Leaves can’t be allowed to cover the lawn for too long, because they exclude light and prevent the lawn from thriving. But they can easily be raked into nearby landscape beds and gardens. If you don’t have enough garden space to accommodate all your leaves, you have two choices. Either plant more beds (much more attractive and better for the environment than lawn anyway) or compost your leaves. If you are lucky enough to live within the city of Newark, the city will compost your leaves for you. Just rake them out to the road and a truck will come and suck them up! You can pick up composted leaf mulch from the pile on 896. For those of us outside city limits, we can chop leaves up with a lawn mower or leaf vacuum. They will shrink dramatically in size, making them easier to store. When they decompose, they provide rich mulch for next year’s beds and gardens.
Leaves can also be used to protect tender plants. I have been using a wire cage filled with leaves to protect a fig plant that is marginally hardy here for several years now.
Cutting back perennials is another fall garden task. The more you cut back in the fall, the less you need to do next spring. But, be sure to leave some perennials with attractive structure to make the winter landscape interesting. Echinacea seed heads with caps of snow are beautiful and contain seeds to feed birds. There are many perennials that get beaten down by the winter weather and won’t require much, if any, clean up next spring. It is important to remove weeds before they go to seed or seed heads from aggressive plants you want to control in your garden. I have a nice patch of cup plant (Silphiumn perfoliatum), which I love to see bloom in the back of my perennial border, but if I don’t remove the spent flowers, I will have a border that is nothing but cup plant. In other areas, I want the aggressive plants to spread. A patch of sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) has been spreading in a section of the garden where I want it to take over, so I don’t cut them back until spring, after they’ve dropped their seeds.
Our warm weather has made fall garden tasks a pleasure. You still have time to rake those leaves into your beds, prune back aggressive perennials, pull a few weeds, pick up sticks and branches the wind brings down and then enjoy a warm fire with the kindling you gathered.