I find trees very exciting. As a species humans are used to looking down on things that are smaller than us: shrubs, bulbs, herbaceous plants etc. We marvel at big things, like large animals and huge buildings, and in nature we marvel at trees.

Some trees are putting on an incredible display this year

Autumn in my corner of the UK has been a little muted. The early heat and drought here, followed by several months of rain and cooler temperatures, has caused some trees to colour really well while others are still green. I’m going to be spending a lot of time clearing up fallen leaves.

Should I?

It’s encouraging to see the question of leaves being asked a little more widely. There have been quiet conversations in the gardening world about whether the received wisdom of composting every bit of garden waste is still all that wise. There is even the question of whether fallen leaves and woody materials are waste at all!

These conversations have at the fringes of the gardening world up until now. Those of us who engage in this horticultural heresy don’t do so because we want to make life difficult for others, and we don’t do so because we woke up one morning thinking we know better than everyone else.

What if weeds weren’t always the enemy we’re told they are?

Gardening knowledge is passed down from generation to generation, formally via colleges and education groups or informally via other gardeners. We’re told that we must do X, Y or Z and that these are the things that make gardens successful.

But what if what we’re told isn’t entirely true?

Everything You Know Is Wrong!

Saying that all gardening wisdom is wrong is as disingenuous as it is untrue.

If the information given to gardeners was wrong then gardeners would fail in their endeavours and the results would be plain to see. The new way of thinking is that information might not be as true as we thought it is.

Gardener’s Gold

Leaves are very much on my mind at the moment so it seems right to use them as an example.

At the moment deciduous trees across the Northern Hemisphere are dropping their leaves as they prepare for winter. It’s a beautiful time of year, but also traditionally an irritating one for gardeners. Leaves fall from trees and mess up our gardens, leaving detritus all over our pristine lawns and flower beds. The gardener must collect these leaves and dispose of them.

Lots of large leaves on a lawn are unhelpful and need clearing

This attitude has slowly changed over the years. Gardeners used to pile up leaves and burn them as ‘garden trash’; now we’re generally more inclined to collect the leaves and add them to compost heaps. We drag the leaves to a set point, pile them up, wait until they’ve broken down and then take them back to the garden as a mulch.

It’s very laborious and time-consuming.

But there’s increased interest in composting those leaves on the ground rather than taking them away. If we can use leaves, shredding larger leaves, as a mulch in the autumn then we can save ourselves a lot of time. However we might be doing a lot more good than we think.

Natural Processes

Walk through a woodland and you will hopefully see a lot of healthy trees, maybe some shrubs and herbaceous plants too. What you won’t see is a compost pile. Composting is happening right under your feet; the leaves that fall in autumn are broken down by fungi and soil-dwelling creatures like worms and beetles to make leaf-mould.

Fallen leaves, and even fallen branches and twigs from trees, feed a complex ecosystem that definitely benefits the plants- the proof of this is all around us.

There was a time when we would tidy this up, but this is all food for an ecosystem

The healthier that ecosystem is the less likely pathogens are to dominate. At its simplest expression it’s a matter of space. Fill a glass right to the top with your favourite soda. Now the glass is full it’s impossible to fit anything else into the glass. If an ecosystem is rich in beneficial species (or species that neither benefit nor harm plants) then it’s much harder for harmful species to take over.

Human Arrogance

There are those who label gardeners who don’t follow nature’s way as ‘arrogant’ or ‘controlling’. This is unfair.

We’re only now starting to appreciate the extraordinary complexity of soil ecosystems, and I’m confident that the more we learn and understand the more we will modify our gardening behaviours in light of new information. As I said earlier in this piece, we learn about gardening from other gardeners, and we not only rely on them being fully informed but also on the people who taught them!

Shredded leaves ready to go onto a border

Inevitably gardening information passed around is subject to confusion and misinterpretation, but we must recognise that there have been incredible developments in our understanding in recent years.

We have a lot of new things to learn.

Maintenance vs. Management

Gardeners used to maintain gardens but increasingly we now manage them.

What’s the difference?

Maintenance is about keeping things the same each year. We do the same things at the same time to keep our gardens looking the same.

By contrast management is about making decisions based on current information. It sounds like pedantic semantics but the truth is that it’s an important difference. One approach is closed to new ideas as they’re not needed to maintain the status quo, while the other embraces new ideas and hopes to employ new information to improve the garden.

A mower can chomp through large carpets of leaves (best if they’re dry), but try to disturb anything living in them first

And yes, learning new things all the time is difficult. It’s much easier to blindly do what we’ve always done in our gardens, but if new ideas could make our gardens healthier and easier to manage then it’s worth bearing those new ideas in mind.