By MARY FRAN McQUADE
I can’t pretend any longer. Fall has moved in, with its mists and all. Our gardens are sweetly saying goodbye to us, with brilliant leaf colours, a few final brave roses, defiant geraniums and hydrangea blooms turning a dusky pink.
It’s time now to turn our attention to leaves and seeds.
Clean up, yes or no?
First, a word or two about garden clean-up. Like everything else 2020, the idea of a fall clean-up has sparked controversy. Some people want to tidy up for spring. Others want to let things be, to protect the tiny lives that shelter in leaves and stems during winter.
This doesn’t have to be an either/or issue. Leaving a garden totally bare in winter leaves it open to drying winds and without any insulation between snows. Cutting stems to about 10 inches is enough to keep everyone happy – plants, native bees and gardeners. Spreading a layer of leaves over everything is always helpful. They protect against those drying winds, insulate against premature thawing and decay into lovely organic matter that improves the soil. It’s free, and you don’t have to bag it for garden waste pickup.
Speaking of leaves
Our wonderful leafy neighbourhood pours huge quantities of leaves down on us in fall. A mature tree can have a quarter-million leaves on it, so it’s not unusual to see a dozen leaf bags set out at the curb for pick up from just one house.
Sometimes there’s a reason for that – no other place to put them, not enough time to do anything else with them, not enough strength to handle such a horde.
But if you can scrounge up some space in a corner of your yard and find some time or some help, you can turn those leaves into garden treasure.
We’ve all heard about compost, AKA “garden gold,” but compost is, basically, just decayed vegetation. Sure, it works faster if you mix brown (dried) stuff like leaves with green (fresh) stuff like veggie peels and trimmings. But, hey, we’ve got all winter to wait. Do as a friend of mine does: Fill your leaf bags and tuck them away in a hidden corner. Let the rain, the frost and the sun work on them. By summer, you’ll have beautifully decayed, crumbly dark compost ready to add to your beds, borders and containers.
If someone in the family is super-energetic, even better! Persuade them to build you a quick and easy corral out of snow fencing. chicken wire or even wood pallets. Just toss your leaves into the corral and let them wait there until spring.
If you have a lawnmower or leaf shredder, chop the leaves into smaller bits, and they’ll decay faster. This only works, though, if they’re dry enough to shred in the first place. Otherwise, you’ll spend a lot of time cursing and trying to free wet, matted leaf bits stuck on the blades.
Save those seeds
Crisp autumn days are fine for searching out ripe flower seeds to share with friends or to plant in your own garden. Most annuals won’t return unless you plant their seeds again, either now or in the spring. Biennials like hollyhocks and foxglove are even trickier, because you have to wait two years from flower to flower. And the seeds of most native flowers need to go through a cold winter before they’ll sprout.
It’s best if you can collect your seeds on a dry, windless day. Pinch the seedheads off the flower stem and pop them into a small box or paper envelope. Unless you’re sure you can recognize them later, scribble the plant name on the container.
When you’re back indoors, prep your seeds for storage. Remove any stems, leaves or dead petals and discard. If the seeds feel wet or damp, put them in a warm, dry place for a few days.
When they’re fully dried, separate the individual seeds by shaking the seedhead, so they drop on a big sheet of paper. (Some seeds, like hollyhocks, may be tightly packed together, and you’ll have to pick them apart.)
Store seeds of annuals in small paper envelopes, label and date. (“Coin envelopes” are perfect.) Start them indoors or outdoors in spring. Native flowers and biennials, you can plant by scattering their seeds and scratching them into the soil this fall before the ground freezes.
Enjoy every autumn day while it lasts!