‘Robert, why do we have to do all this leaf raking. Why can’t we let them all get blown into the borders and break down naturally?’-asked the whining student one Autumn of the evil, bloody-minded old Head Gardener.

Oh come on! Life really isn’t that simple!

It was a long time ago before leaf blowers were widely available and the leaf sweeper we had was useless. So I talked him through the various issues. We walked to the leaf heaps and saw how three bays full of leaves in the end rotted down to just one bay’s worth. To put the same amount of mulch on your borders you would, for several years be knee and then calf deep in leaves, as they swilled around. 

We discussed the vagaries of the wind. How the leaves would sit on the grass too and kill it. We had lots of succulents, grey and xerophytic plants which are killed stone dead by sitting beneath rotting leaves. I also described the way that, as you rake the leaves, you tear the moss out of the turf and also prune the grass. He got the works! 

I don’t think it did too much good and he left shortly after ‘to design gardens.’ I wonder whether his designs featured any space for leaf heaps? But I sometimes think of him as I use the end product. The process is part of the pattern of gardening, but this for me is what it is all about:


With the ground now warming up and moist, there is something wrong if at this time of year, I have not for several weeks, in fits and starts, being flinging this rich chocolatey, friable mix over borders. In well aimed shovels-full to start with, and then, as the delicate, young shoots of herbaceous perennials start to emerge, in more precise, nurturing handfuls. I am, St. Francis–like, usually accompanied by birds picking the surface over for its rich crop of worms. So it is part of their year too.

What good does all this process do? It is of course only minimally nutritious, but it gets drawn into the soil by worms to improve soil structure and moisture retention in the rooting zone, thereby improving plant health. End of text book stuff. The real immediate payback is that it looks fab. Plants sing out against it! And as they grow and fill out, the purchase that weeds get is significantly reduced. In that layer you can pull weeds out with your fingers.

These days I garden for myself, and do buy in some help with leaves. I notice that the moss has built up more, so that has to be separately removed. I have to say that I hate the noise of the leaf blowers and so do the birds.

I still also indulge in a little leaf raking. Its magic on the stomach muscles should not be underestimated. Leaning on the rake to take a breather as you harvest the leaves on a crisp, sunny Autumn morning is bliss. And without that effort you do not achieve, earn this synchronistic, holistic process which culminates now!