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The autumn leaves drift past your window. Now leave them alone.

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: October 3, 2019
  • Published October 3, 2019

Raking leaves isn't always necessary. Mulching the leaves to serve as fertilizer is a worthy alternative. (Bill Roth / ADN file photo)

Many yardeners rely on highly polluting lawn mowers and lawn tractors, fume-spewing weed eaters and leaf blowers as well as an array of unnatural chemicals to kill weeds and pests. More destroy soil structure in the name of gardening by rototilling, irrevocably alter natural habitats by planting invasive plants and greatly change local and even regional biomes in the process. All of this is done in the name of good gardening.

It is absolutely time for all of us to develop, adopt and adhere to new, 21st century gardening and yardening rules. It is becoming increasingly clear that if we don’t, we can forget about gardening in a 22nd century. For many Alaskans, this is not going to be a big problem. We already are soil food webbies. and we recognize that it is the microbes in the soil that drive the system that grows plants.

For most of America, however (and one or two readers here in Alaska), it is time to change. That being the case, the place to start is with autumn leaves. The old rule resulted in the yard being cleared of every single last leaf. It was a lot of time-consuming work collecting leaves and putting them into black, plastic bags, then depositing them at the curb for pick-up and subsequent disposal into the nearest landfill. This is such normal gardening practice that it has resulted in an industry that just manufactures and supplies these darn bags!

OK: Out with the old and in with the new. The rule now is what falls from a tree is meant to remain. Leave as many fallen leaves in place as possible. The exceptions are driveways, decks, roofs and paths.

Let me make it clearer. It is no longer acceptable to rake leaves off your lawns and garden beds, from your containers or from underneath and around trees and shrubs (though it is a good idea to pull them back from trunks a bit so they don’t decay the bark). This is the rule and if you want to be considered a good gardener, you must follow it. I know it sounds harsh, Draconian even. Get over it.

Don’t worry about smothering your lawn. We now know these leaves will mostly disappear through microbial decay during the winter months, especially if they end up under a cover of snow all winter. This cover magically increases microbial activity by creating a warmer interface between the snow and the ground.

The supplement to this new rule is that if the leaves don’t decay come spring, mulch them up with a mower. They will continue to feed the very soil food web organisms that feed plants and develop and maintain ideal soil structure.

Again, let me be clear. Your lawn will be fine. We have a huge lawn (which itself does have to be addressed with a new rule, but that is another column). We also have dozens and dozens of huge birch trees. In developing this new rule, I first practiced and also encouraged readers to mulch these up in the fall with a mower. That was a wasted step both in terms of work as well as using my super polluting lawn tractor (there is another rule to develop there, too).

So, again: the 21st century practice is to leave leaves alone.

The results over the past 20 years of experimenting have been practice altering. I no longer fertilize. I don’t need to apply lime. I have extremely limited watering chores and only need to mow the lawn once every two or three weeks. I wonder if the lawn food companies weren’t encouraging raking leaves all these past years because they knew leaves are competition to the fertilizer salts they push on us. It is time for the environment, not corporate profit, to make the rules.

Other parts of this new rule are to keep enough leaves for use as brown mulch for next season’s perennial gardens, trees and shrubs as well as for use in keeping a compost pile running.

As noted, this is the right way to take care of your yard. Hence forth, a yard devoid of leaves in the fall must be seen as a poorly maintained yard. I know that sounds weird and I know many will not like that I have presented it as a no-choice thing, but perhaps all the time and effort saved in raking will be salve for any wounds the new rule inflicts. At least I know not raking the leaves will be a balm for the yard.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar

Your local botanical gardens: This is the time to join your favorite botanical garden. Budgets for next season are being developed and your memberships now will make sure you have the best gardens to visit next year. It is also a great time to make those tax deductible donations. The Alaska Botanical Garden, the Georgeson Botanical Garden and the Friends of the Jenson-Olson Arboretum are just three here in Alaska.

Maybe NOT spruce bark beetle: This time of year, evergreens naturally drop some needles. If you see a few limbs with some brown needles, don’t cut the tree down quite yet.

Garlics: Now is when you should be planting them.

Potatoes and Brussels sprouts: Still no hard frost? It is probably okay to harvest yours.

Flowers and veggies: What are you waiting for? Any that are out there still looking decent should be picked and enjoyed.

Hoses, faucets and watering tools: Discount, drain and store.