Why you should be saving all the autumn leaves you can in your garden

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People have lots of different ideas about autumn leaves but come this time of year, come what may, they are piling up all over. They fill street gutters, blanket pathways and catch in lawns. Dropped leaves in various shades of brown are everywhere.

They are an unsightly mess for some, a seasonal delight for others and pure gold for gardeners. But while growers have always understood the power of fallen, faded foliage to rot into a wondrous concoction that improves soils, a whole new troupe of autumn leaf devotees has sprung up this season.

Autumn leaves made by Joshua Petherick and Lewis Fidock were recently shown at Asbestos in Brunswick, Melbourne.Credit: Asbestos

The prompt? Leaves as big as monuments that have appeared in art galleries in Melbourne and Sydney. These elaborate ruses have crumpled over floors and curled up walls. Some have folded in on themselves, like some leaves do.

Made by collaborating artists Joshua Petherick and Lewis Fidock from burlap, steel, rope and all sorts of other unlikely-sounding materials, these playful works might be absurdist but they also highlight the fact that disintegrating leaves are not to be toyed with. They are a natural bounty that we should be hanging onto.

A recent show at Asbestos in Brunswick highlighted the beauty of a disintegrating leaf.Credit: Asbestos

At this time of year it’s worth going outside and gathering up all the foliage you can. Not only will the leafy stash turn into a high-performance soil conditioner that will cost you not a cent, fungi will do all the hard work for you.

They will break down the leaves into a soft, dark mix that will improve your soil’s structure and its water-holding capacity. This leaf mould will help your soil lure more worms and grow healthier plants. It has no downside.

A recent show at Asbestos in Brunswick has inspired a new troupe of autumn leaf devotees Credit: Asbestos

But to get it you will need to make the stuff, which might not require money but will take some space – at least at the start of the process when the leaves are freshly shed and at their most voluminous.

If you have a lawn mower, by running over the leaves a few times and shredding them first you can make your pile more compact and the smaller pieces will also decompose faster. Add nitrogen-rich blood and bone or manure and you can cut down the rotting process to a matter of mere months.

But generally speaking, it takes a year or two for pure fallen leaves to break down into the sort of precious commodity that will enhance soil.

While autumn leaves had many of their nutrients leached out of them as deciduous trees reclaimed their chemicals before shedding them, they are still rich in cellulose and will turn into a carbon-rich hummus.

Leaf mould does provide less nutrients than compost, which is made from materials containing both carbon (autumn leaves, straw, paper) and nitrogen (food waste, grass clippings) but it still weaves all sorts of magic. And – being a one-ingredient brew –it’s straightforward to make.

You can even just scatter your leaves over your garden beds and leave the decomposition to happen naturally. Worms will gradually work the results into your soil. But be careful not to spread so many leaves that they form thick wads that rain can’t penetrate.

Those with access to vast quantities of leaves will do better to pile them up into cages easily constructed out of chicken wire or into tough bags made more airy by punching holes through. Hidden corners in gardens are a perfect place to leave them but make your cages look good enough and those with less space can even make leaf mould on a balcony.

Keep the leaves damp and the leaves will rot into the tiniest fraction of their former selves. Mini mountains of leaves will reduce into something that can fit into a bucket. You can never make enough of the stuff.

Then, whatever your soil type, or whether you grow in the ground or in containers, incorporate the leafy reduction into your garden. Your plants will thank you for it.

Joshua Petherick and Lewis Fidock are showing two disintegrating leaf works in a group show, called Farr St, at Minerva in Sydney until May 6.

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