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Fallen leaves give reader "natural" way to feed soil

When I get a particularly interesting e-mail I like to share it with other readers of this column. Usually, it involves a question about a landscaping problem, but sometimes it’s a fascinating story, such as this one from Jan Frame, who lives in Canada.

Jan had read a previous column discussing whether it’s better to rake leaves or simply leave them alone, when they’re not covering an area of lawn. She continues:

"My instincts always have been that the natural environment has long dealt with the burden of leaves in the Fall. Thus, while I do take them off the lawns, I often stack them on the beds over winter. I don't use chemicals on my beds so I look at this as a good way of restoring some things that the soil needs. I even go blocks away to find bags of oak leaves since they break down so slowly. (I live in a city of about five million so a garden, particularly with ravine land is very special.)

"Our winters are also long, with frequent freeze and thaw, as well as weeks of close to -40 wind chill. I think the leaves help to moderate the extremes in temperature and keep the ground a lot more consistent than those awful days of below zero temperature. Leaves also provide needed shelter for some wildlife. While some of these can be a problem, I specifically plant grasses and such in the bowl of the ravine as we have five deer who shelter there in the worst of the winter - not bad for being able to see the city core two miles away across the ravine.

"In the spring, I take the leaf cover off my beds. This process often requires a few days because there are cold pockets still frozen. Still, there is a lot of green uncovered in this process. These partly ground composted leaves are then further composted and added where needed during the season.

"We had to replant part of the ravine due to some slope stability issues which resulted in the loss of 14 trees, as well as dead elms and the current rage to get rid of the Manitoba Maples. However, I have used a grower of genetic native stock to put in ravine trees that would have been in this part of Ontario.

"Anyway, the ‘to rake or not to rake’ issue seems ongoing. Is there maybe a zone sort of variant, or one for the more native planting approach?"

Thank you for your interesting insight into life north of the border, Jan. So how about it readers? What are your thoughts about raking leaves or leaving them alone?

I received a lot of response to recent columns on the subject of composting and simple ways to build your own compost pile. If you missed those columns, you can find them archived under the Plant Man heading at my Web site www.landsteward.org

Here’s a comment from a reader who signed herself Susan:

"I inherited a garden gone to weeds when I bought the house I'm in today. I love to garden but I hate to weed so I figured out a way to significantly reduce weeding and also fertilize my garden at the same time. I Rototill the garden in the fall, adding compost from the compost pile so it is well worked into the soil. Then I vacuum and mulch my leaves and spread them over the garden.

"In the spring I don't have to wait for the soil to dry out to do my planting and I'm not disturbing the weed seeds. I just push aside the leaves and plant my seeds or seedlings and leave the leafs to act as mulch and continue disintegrating. I have very few weeds and great soil."

Thanks for sharing your ideas, Susan. If you have a comment or a landscaping idea you’d like to share, send it to me via e-mail. I’ll include some of the best in this column or in my weekly newsletter.

The Plant Man is here to help. Send questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to [email protected] For resources and additional information, or to subscribe to Steve’s free e-mailed newsletter, go to www.landsteward.org