Wednesday, October 19, 2016

This Fall, Corral Those Leaves

I'll never understand why the human race throws certain things away, be it leaves or a hospitable climate. The two seem far different, but it's all one needless and tragic purging, a throwing away of nature's gifts while curiously courting danger, present and future. Some of my most vivid and happy memories from childhood involve leaves. One year I took the white oak leaves in our yard and raked them into rows to make a house, then rode my tricycle through the various rooms. Some leaves we burned, perfuming the autumn air. We'd throw acorns into the embers and wait for them to pop. And there's the memory of the whole family raking leaves down the hill, a row of leaves, dancing before us in bright sunlight, growing in size, to make a big pile at the edge of the woods. With my friends, I'd run down the hill, launch myself into the pile, to be enveloped in its crisp embrace. My walk to school was essentially a nature walk, through woods, down a mix of narrow paved and unpaved roads. One maple tree had particularly bright leaves with orange, yellow and red, to pick up and take to art class.

Now I live in a larger small town, a Little Big Town (like the Dustin Hoffman movie Little Big Man), on a busy street, and though I cannot stem the odd and hazardous tradition of piling leaves in the way of cars, bicyclists and pedestrians, or the stampede of traffic spilling gases into the air, I can toss leaves into a leaf corral, in what seems to me a more sustaining and spiritual approach to the physical world. The leaf corrals are an experiment in no-work, no carbon footprint composting. This fall, the corrals' contents, decomposing passively all summer, were inspected to see the results. This particular corral--called a Wishing the Earth Well because it's a well that works in reverse, giving nutrients back to the earth--includes a central cylinder made of critter-proof hardware cloth, where food scraps can be thrown and allowed to decompose, surrounded and disguised by a donut-shaped column of leaves. Yield of this 3 foot diameter corral was one and a half big tubs of compost, and a retrieved teaspoon from the kitchen that somehow got mixed in with the food scraps. There was also an effort to grow potatoes and nasturiums, which showed some promise. A botanist, by the way, will watch a movie like Young Frankenstein and come away wondering what Gene Wilder meant when he said "Never be nasty to nasturiums." Was he speaking metaphorically, or was it just something that needed to be said?

A larger corral, six feet wide and called the OK Leaf Corral, yielded five big tubs of compost ready for incorporation into the garden beds.

Here's a closeup of the compost, soft and spongy, dark and rich. Ah, the rewards of all that non-labor and non-burning of fossil fuels.

A neighbor who tried this leaf corral approach said his leaves didn't decompose, which probably meant they were dry. I, too, noticed in midsummer some pockets of undecomposed leaves in the piles, and came up with a novel approach to improving decomposition without having to turn the pile. This root feeder, normally used for fertilizing trees, can inject water into the leaf pile while also making channels for rainwater to penetrate. A few minutes of poking around was all it took to get the interior of the pile moist, and enable the decomposition of the red oak leaves by end of summer. Moisture, along with all the decomposing fungi, bacteria and insects, also enter from the ground beneath the pile.

Here's the prettiest leaf corral, which you'll have to take my word for because it's completely disguised by a dogwood tree. In other words, leaf corrals can blend into the yard, disguised by foliage while they quietly work their decomposing magic. A nice surprise last fall and winter was how the leaves would quickly settle in the corrals, after just a few days, allowing more leaves to be added as the trees slowly let them go. A leaf corral performs, then, as a bottomless receptacle for leaves.

In its simplest form, a leaf corral is made of green wire fencing, 3-4 feet high, with a couple stakes to hold it in place. Some folks in town have asked me to make leaf corrals for them, which I'm happy to do at cost, along with a donation to our Friends of Herrontown Woods.

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