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Autumn leaves

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It’s that time of year again. Nights are longer. The days shorter. And getting out of bed is becoming more and more difficult.

Autumn is here!

But before we start looking forward to the start of Spring by hunkering down under a duvet and a hot water bottle, we must celebrate Nature’s Bounty.

As a grumpy child at boarding school in Queenstown (I still shiver when I think of the wind coming down into town from the Winterberg), I remember the harvest service at our local church.

Autumn is a bountiful time. The crops are in. The naartjie's are ready. The pumpkins large (and in some cases monstrous).

And another bounty awaits: leaves.

Every year they fill up our gardens, verges and streets (I assume that this is why Autumn is called "fall").

Now if you’re managing British Rail falling leaves will always come as a complete surprise. Who knew that rail transport can be delayed because of “leaves on the tracks”?

Autumn is a wonderful regenerative time; the season when trees harvest themselves.

The leaves lying in swathes along the ground become, over the Winter, a nutrient source to assist Spring growth. These leaves, full of minerals which have been mined from deep in the soil over the Summer, are broken down by macro and micro-organisms while providing the perfect material for fungi growth.

We know this as “leaf mould”. A wonderful crumbly dark substance which can be used as a mulch, lawn dressing and a fantastic soil amendment. Good leaf mould can hold up to 500 per cent of its own weight in water - a wonderful benefit up here in the dry Highveld winter.

This magical substance is easy to make. The first method is to simply bag it, water it and then poke some holes in the bag and store it for Spring. The other method is to rake it into your beds. And let nature do what it does best - let the fungi, bacteria and other wonderful little worms, sow bugs and other critters start doing their shredding and decomposing work.

What’s the difference between compost and leaf mould? Making compost is a hot process: one piles the organic material and then periodically turns it in order to generate heat by adding oxygen. Compost utilises bacteria to do the work. Making leaf mould is a cold process and relies on fungi for decomposition.

Compost is fast. Leaf mould is slow. But there are advantages to slow. Hot composting tends to use up energy while a cold process retains more energy.

However, both are wonderful substances. Both are good for your soil. And both avoid the need to send valuable organic nutrients to landfill.

Driving around my neighbourhood in Autumn is both exhilarating and depressing. Exhilarating to see nature at work. Depressing when we see a hard working gardener diligently raking out all the organic material from the beds (and inadvertently creating agapanthus crowned sand castles).

Or worse, people using a very noisy, gas guzzling, CO2 emitting, leaf blower to blow leaves into the storm water drains (and one of these 'fast' people be the first to complain in the rainy season when the storm water drains are blocked and his garden flooded).

Soil needs to be nurtured. And the best way to nurture your soil is to not dig it up but to follow the lessons from our forest: mulch, compost and leave organic matter where it falls.

So this Autumn, when the leaves start falling, take advantage of this bounty. Rake it up. Add it to your beds. Bag it. Above all don’t throw it away.

And never, ever, never rake, or blow, it into the storm water drain.

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