And the trees are not only rich, they are generous, too, for each autumn they like to donate their leaves to my garden:
There is much talk these days about leaving the autumn fall in our planting beds, and generally, I agree. Leaves make good mulch, holding in warmth and moisture, and adding nutrients to the soil as they break down. However, I've learned from past experience that leaving this many on top of the plants can smother them from light, and they become scraggly versions of their former selves. Also, the leaves that actually wind up in my garden look like this:
That is a sycamore leaf on the right and a magnolia on the left. You might well ask what a magnolia, a tree adapted to the warm, moist climate of the southern United States, is doing in the high plains of west Texas, with its frigid winters and lack of rainfall. Good question.
Anyway. These are too big to break down quickly, and therefore will not add much in the way of nutrients. Furthermore, as Dee Nash, over at Red Dirt Ramblings, pointed out, big leaves don't break down any quicker in compost, the result of which means I usually have bags and bags of leaf litter stored throughout the year as they wait in line to go into the bins.
In past years, all of my autumn leaf work has been human-powered, and I'll confess, I've felt pretty danged self-righteous about that. No loud leaf blowers for me, disturbing the quiet of the 'hood on a Saturday morning. No lawn vacuums separated me from the natural, zen experience of the simple rake. I was pure.
But honestly, when I looked at that pile of leaves a couple of weeks ago, I suddenly decided that enough is enough. I'm tired up reaching into scratchy shrubs, and pokey cacti and yucca to dig out leaves. I'm tired of bagging up bags and bags of leaves. I'm tired of looking at the bags and bags of leaves for the rest of the year. I don't wanna be zen all the time. Sometimes I want expediency, dammit.
And so I marched down to the big box and bought this:
Yes, a leaf blower. My students who are reading this are laughing right now, for often they have heard me rail against the ridiculous use of this contraption on campus. Armies of workers will wander around with noisy, gas-powered blowers, pushing a single leaf over here. Then over there. Then back again.
Ridiculous. Wasteful. Loud. Really, really annoying.
But this one is not just a leaf blower, it is an electric leaf blower, and it is also a vacuum and mulcher. The latter, in fact, is the thing that finally sold me on it, since the maker claimed it could shred eight bags of leaves down into one. And that, my friends, is a very compelling reason to dip a toe in the dark pools of Loud and Annoying.
Plus, as a former student reminded me, a good tool, properly used, can also be zen.
So, I set to work with high hopes. And the leaf blower, a Toro, did perform well as a vacuum on some tasks, such as getting the leaves out from the base of this mule ear prickly pear:
Uh, yeah. Click on the photo for a look-see at those thorns. Dare you to reach in there. But the Toro did it with aplomb:
It also did a good job of cleaning up the leaf litter that always gets caught in the gravel between flagstones:
But the leaves that blanketed the santolina and cotoneasters were just too thick for the vacuum to handle. In the end, I had to resort to using the blower function to get them out of the grips of the plant and then raking them up into mounds. Once I had big piles of leaves, though, I was still faced with the problem of how to mulch them to reduce the volume. So I resorted to borrowing a neighbor's big gun, a shredder vac:
And after many hours of work, my big mess of leaves was reduced to this:
Don't get too excited--this photo is meant to show that it was reduced to fine litter, not to a single handful of leaves. I mean, just how good do you think those machines are?
The piles still overflowed my compost, but I'd estimate that I reduced the volume of stored leaves by two-thirds, which is still pretty darn good. And since the shredded litter is finer, it will take less time to compost it down.
I did allow some of the leaf litter to remain in the beds, partly for nutrient/moisture reasons, and partly because I like the way it makes the beds look more natural (note: the yuccas in the next picture were almost completely covered by the sycamore leaves):
I estimate that we have one more leaf fall ahead of us, but the remaining trees have smaller leaves and so should not pose as great a problem. I'll probably leave them over the winter to provide warmth for the plants, and rake them up during spring cleanup.
And I can return to feeling pure.