When the trees shed their leaves, I get busy making use of the best soil conditioner a gardener could ever want — freshly fallen leaves.
Instead of composting leaves, I use them immediately by putting down a layer of fresh leaves two to four inches (5 to 10 cm) deep over exposed soil. I also dig in generous quantities anywhere I’m planting or need to improve soil performance. (Leaves also improve worm performance — it’s their favourite food.) I own a simple nylon filament leaf shredder, and for several years I used it to chop up the fallen bounty from two inherited Norway maples. But when the maples were removed to make way for house renovation, I planted beautiful new trees with leaves just the right size to use without shredding — thereby saving me a whole lot of time.
If you’re going to follow my no-shred technique, some leaves are more perfect than others. The best are three to five inches (8 to 13 cm) long, with oval, oblong, lanceolate or wedge-like shapes. These forms mix and meld into a cohesive blanket on top of soil and stay neatly in place, without over-size leaves sticking up, catching the wind and blowing about. The leaf mulch mix in my garden includes ‘Shademaster’ locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis, Zone 5), blue beech (Carpinus caroliniana, Zone 4), river birch (Betula nigra, Zone 4), serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis, Zone 5), pyramidal oak (Quercus robur ‘Fastigiata’, Zone 5), fern leaf beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’, Zone 5), and coniferous tree needles and small cones from spruce, cedar, hemlock and pine. One unique material included in the mix is the long mid-ribs from locust leaves. They retain a slightly bowed form even underground, not quite laying flat, helping to prevent compaction and bring oxygen into the soil.
So here’s my leaf mulch drill: twice in autumn, I rake up big piles of fallen leaves and needles, and throw them into a lightweight plastic kiddy pool (that once contained my kiddies). I drag the pool around from area to area, distributing leaves in the beds and along the base of shrubs and hedges, using a rake to spread them over the soil. That’s it. My leaf shredder gathers dust in the garage, and I’m in the pool with some perfect leaves.
Squirrels as friends: keeping them in their place
Squirrels provide a lot of amusement in the garden, although I really don’t know what they’re doing there. But it’s fun to watch their tree-top antics and see them leap through winter snow drifts. Squirrels relish a healthy diet of nuts, seeds and bulbs, unfortunately putting any newly planted tulip bulbs on their menu. But I’ve successfully foiled their efforts with a simple tactic: I cover my tracks. Squirrels search the soil surface looking for places another squirrel has buried nuts. (But those are my bulbs!) After planting bulbs, I spray the area with a garden hose to erase my marks and make it muddy; then I place a generous pile of leaves over the spot. This works much better than bloodmeal or hot cayenne pepper. The squirrels hardly ever find my bulbs, and the leaves can stay there until the ground freezes; at this point I spread them out as mulch. Problem solved.