As a child my walk to school took me through a rambling footpath between mighty oaks and horse chestnuts. The latter supplied conkers that resulted in many bruised fingers from conker fights. Now this childhood right of passage has been banned. Shame, but it was actually rather dangerous. But also rolling around in leaves could also leave a few cuts and grazes, but it was still fun. The sudden chills of autumn and a few stiff winds carpeted our roads with layers of gold and rust red, leaving trees naked for winters slumber. We had but a week to glory in kicking through these huge piles and it was as if it was our last chance to celebrate the year. A few days later and the fallen leaves had turned brown and lay moulding in the gutters and or any other place that the wind couldn’t reach. We learnt that fallen leaves were good for the garden, good for wildlife and that the garden path would be as slippery as hell if you didn’t rake them up!
So fast forward to this Autumn. With my thick checked garden coat on, making me look a little like a lost Canadian lumberjack, and wool hat, I am clearing leaves for the fifth day in a row. It’s one of those weird tasks that at the end of it your garden appears unchanged, accept a little tidier around the edges, but your red faced, and certainly exhausted. You head out on a warmish day, there is little wind and the leaves are dry and fluttering around. But you know you have to get them raked into piles and into bags for leaf mulch or into the compost pile before it rains. Soggy leaves are hard to rake. And nature decomposes swiftly. For five hours I rake frenziedly into piles, sweating a little and knowing my back is starting to complain. I then accumulate my piles to heave into the wheelbarrow. In the meantime I have headed back to the kitchen for a cup of tea. On returning, horror of horrors, the Guinee fowl, just a mere eight in number, have desecrated the piles and are now screaming at me in total denial. Guinee fowl are naughty birds. They get into trouble but won’t admit to it. I wag an accusing finger. “Was this you?” I ask. They scream more and look at each other to blame.
OK, so let’s start again. This time I successfully get the leaves into the wheel barrow. Ah but now there is another issue on my heals as I squeak my way to the gate. Geese are territorial. What you have with you, is theirs. So this wheel barrow and contents is theirs, my welly boots are theirs and get a few pecks as I wave my rake about. “Go away Bonnie. Cashew leave that. CASHEW LEAVE THAT!”. Cashew is the young second ranking goose under Bonnie [male but we didn’t know that at first. Luckily Bonnie Prince Charles was a male, or Bonnies name would seem sort of stupid], and he has found the pull cord on the dustbin bags that I have with me for other leaves I am mulching. Geese love plastic and rubber. Not sure why. Maybe it’s a nice feeling on their beaks, but they will also swallow these things to. He is yanking the cord and getting excited and setting off the rest of the family in one deafening chorus of honks. Really the only solution is to standstill, breath and wait. The pull cord is not so interesting after all and that wheelbarrow isn’t moving, so at last the gang slope off a little disappointed. I have been pecked by Cashew. It’s painful. He is only playing really, but I really need to get my leaves into the compost pile.
My compost pile is managed by the chickens. Specifically Pickle. This little chicken, from the day we got her two years ago, was obsessed with worm catching. I barely get a spade or fork into the ground, and Pickle manifests out of nowhere. It’s as if she has some tracker device on me. Digging means worms and in the process of some very deft leg action by the chickens to find these poor souls, my leaves get mulched into the earth. It’s a win win for me. Before chickens, I would have to regularly turn the compost to aerate. The air, a chemical process, helps bacteria to break down the materials of greens –grass, leaves, and browns – pruning’s from shrubs, straw and hemp if you have like I do from my coops. Hemp is particularly good for composting. Its hold moisture extremely well and composts slowly, thus keeping the moisture levels high in your compost in between adding water. If the compost gets too wet, little gnat like flies appear and the compost smells a little musty. Too dry and nothing happens. Compost will not be created. If you leave your compost pile uncovered, as I do, then watering is not an issue. As said, the hemp helps when we might have a dry spell. People think composting is difficult. It isn’t. Simply you have to balance the greens and the browns, turn regularly and make sure everything is mixed well, and ideally bringing the bottom layers upwards to the top. This works for me. I tried using plastic bins and although the compost is created quickly due to the heat build-up in the closed space, I found the bottom layer often composted too much and the top less so, not so useful if I wanted to make a large amount in one go. Therefore there was more turning to get consistency. If you have very large bins, say made out of pallets and covered, then that method is ok, as you will have plenty of bottom layer to use throughout the garden.
I therefore tried a more open approach, piling the cuttings, hemp, hay, leaves in a pile. I then found that chickens hate mounds. A chicken will make it their days work to get that pile flat. They also love worms. Tactics at play – I found the simplest method was to roughly dig up the soil and pile casually on top of the leaf and cutting mounds. The chickens would kick and scratch about in the soil looking for worms and at the same time combine the other material into the soil. Voila, job done. The chickens would then continue to even the ground to a spirit level exactness I could never achieve and my compost turned from an hour’s work, to a five minute leisurely chicken bonding worm hunt session. Pickle is bursting with excitement. She might be small with a dismal tail made up of three chewed feathers, but she rules the compost and no-one has a more steely eye for a juicy worm than her. First pickings and Pickle is happy.
I will write a post specifically on composting as there is some chemistry involved and I want to persuade everyone to compost. I am obsessed about the stuff. Its free fertilizer and soil improver extraordinaire and I have been making mine now for over twenty years. I have saved a small fortune and relished in using my own plants and now coop manure to create this garden gold. But for even simpler garden organic matter, simply raking up your garden leaves is a start.
I have two hectares surrounded by trees. In the main field we leave the leaves for now to break down in the grass and weeds there. It is a butterfly and insect field and really nature deals with the growth, seeding and decomposing each year. We need do very little apart from keep brambles at bay. The other hectare is shared with the poultry. The geese keep the grass trimmed and weeds at bay and the ducks are brilliant at aerating the soil as they drill about for bugs and snails. The chickens, if confined in a smallish space, say twenty metres by eight metres, will over a year destroy anything remotely green. So we free range them and spread the scratching. Some areas are left as chicken specific areas. Here I encourage them to scratch, throwing seeds and composting material. This allows some respite on the areas I want to remain in grass. Anything you really wish to protect, must be fenced off or secured under wire.
This leaves me with half a hectare of what I suppose can be called our garden. It isn’t finished yet but over the first year of ownership we have pruned the old fruit trees and cleaned up years of fallen branches to improve the grass. There are about ten apple trees, two walnut trees, a couple of chestnuts and many oak and ash trees. We have a lot of leaves. It looks like I need to set aside a week in autumn to accumulate the regular fall of leaves. The walnut tree fruits late and during October I gathered around a thousand walnuts. The dark redish brown leaves fell and I filled twelve one hundred litre bags. If you leave the top of the bags a little open to catch the rain, by march, with a regular shake, you will have a wonder almost black crumbly mulch to top dress your beds and around your trees. Sometimes it can take a year, but it depends on the leaves you have and how often you check moisture levels. Experience will inform. Clearing the leaves keeps the garden tidy for one thing, as build up can prevent light from reaching the lawn and encouraging weeds. Small plants can get smothered and the leaves, although perfect homes for bugs, will encourage slugs and snails, and these will eat your plants. Better the bugs head for the composter and take their chances with the chickens. I do however leave a few piles of leaves around for the wildlife where they can do no harm and a couple of piles for the Guinee fowl who just love to play.
Collect your leaves ideally daily. Leaving them to collect all at once may entail a few wet days beforehand and many leaves will start to decompose and be harder to rake. It will also take a back-breaking long day to do this. My five hours almost killed me, but I had failed to start when the leaves began to fall.
Be careful when collecting left piles of leaves that there are no hedgehogs or toads inside. If so, move them and ideally along with some leaves, to a new home.
I rake with a flat rake. It’s brilliant. Light and wide, it doesn’t catch the grass, just the leaves. A pair of grabbers makes light work of hoisting the leaves into the wheel barrow. For small piles that I want to take to the chicken runs, I use an old wicker dog basket with rope handles. It’s light and easy to carry and empty where I need.
You can mow up your leaves if the grass is dry. Set the blades high and use the collector. But for me, I want to feel autumn, and I want to jump in the leaf piles. I also want to chastise my geese and let my Guinee fowl be naughty. My chickens are waiting impatiently now. The last wheelbarrow has been distributed, levels checked and they are ready for another worm hunt. I dutifully turn over another leaf pile, fork over some clods of earth and head back to the farmhouse. There is a happy chirruping coming from the composter. All the chickens have arrived. Ronnie, Mr Chicken and Napoleon my cockerels are there too and for once, worm hunting beats fighting. Who would have thought fallen leaves could make a garden such a happy place.