An appropriately dreich morning for Armistice Day. Mist hangs over Salisbury, and the shed is full of the sound of pattering raindrops and falling leaves from the large trees at the top of the garden.
Today feels like one of those late autumn days when it will scarcely get light, but that does not necessarily make it gloomy. The leaves have turned suddenly since the frost earlier in the week, and there is gold in the branches and stems. Sycamore leaves, in all the shades of orange and red, fall thickly onto the paths now.
I am not one for the constant sweeping of fallen leaves, except where they risk making things too slippery underfoot or clogging drains. Most of them I move in big handfuls onto the borders, where they will slowly break down and enrich the soil. As long as the crowns of perennials do not become covered by too thick a layer and risk becoming too wet and rotting, they will do no harm at all. Those that I do remove are bagged up to rot down over the coming year – but this is always a slower process than nature would allow if they were left in situ. Worms will slowly but inexorably pull them under the surface, which is what would happen in woodland, where leaf mould sustains the trees for centuries.
Closing the circle of nutrients is a fundamental requirement in these times of environmental decay. It always pains me to see barrowloads of green material being carted away from a garden, only to be replaced by ‘imported’ compost and mulch. All that goodness removed from the earth, when it could so easily – by composting and more sustainable habits – remain to nurture next year’s growth.
At the same time, the fallen leaves provide a haven for all manner of insects and other ‘minibeasts’, which in turn improve the ecology of the garden. They will eat their weights in dead plant matter, which then returns to the border. Those, that is, that aren’t themselves devoured by birds.. Blackbirds, Robins and Dunnocks constantly turn over the fallen leaves in search of food over the colder months. Yes, they might spill a few onto the path as they do so, but in return they keep the garden healthy and provide a welcome pleasure through the winter.
The same goes for the dying-back of herbaceous plants themselves. Hollow stems and over-wintering foliage will shelter ladybirds and other beneficial insects, either hibernating or simply avoiding the cold snaps when they come. Too much tidiness is the enemy of a naturally healthy garden.