The five sugar maples (acer saccharinum) that line the bank above the front of the house look resplendent in the October sunshine but gradually the leaves fall to the ground forming a blanket of every imaginable autumn hue. It seems almost a sacrilege to gather them up and cart them away but wind and rain are forecast for the next few days and they are bound to come down upon the drive and become a soggy mess.
I gather the leaves with a large florescent-blue plastic lawn-rake, as cheap as they come but it works well and is a pleasant chore, humming the tune of the lonely cowboy whilst pulling together mounds of leaves and barrowing them away.
But then the silence is broken when I get out my favourite garden tool: the electric blow/suck vacuum. I have to confess that when I bought my first vacuum I thought it was the knees-bees and that I’d never use the lawn-rake ever again. However, the vacuum does have its limitations but used together they make a formidable team.
First I attach the blow tube attachment and turn it on full blast. Working steadily from one end of the bank to the other, I endeavour to coax the remaining leaves towards the other end. One false move though and they fly over my head like mischievous sheep and I have to start all over again.
Finally the vacuum tube and bag are fitted to collect any remaining leaves that have become entangled in the mixed hedge that runs behind the maple trees. The vacuum makes a rather satisfying sound as it sucks up and shreds the leaves but then the sound changes to a strident whirring sound when perhaps a stalk blocks the entrance to the bag and has to be removed.
The bag itself has to be maintained regularly, the entrance can easily become restricted by a build-up of mud, especially if you use it in wet weather conditions. The bag is vulnerable and needs drying out between use to prevent it rotting. The weakest point is where the leaves hit the back of the bag at velocity, in time a hole develops and to prevent this I have the habit of slipping a plastic bag down to line the vacuum bag. And never forget that leaves can quickly become heavy so never overfill the bag, have the discipline to empty it often, otherwise you will not only damage the bag but more importantly, you can seriously strain your shoulder.
Finally the leaves are gathered up and the fragile grass beneath the trees can breathe once more. I stand around looking rather pleased with myself but then a final leaf falls from the maple and lands on my nose just to show who’s who.
But where do the leaves go? I prefer not to put them on the compost heap whose herbaceous contents break down much faster than most leaves. Instead I have leaf-mould bins that I keep down in the wooded area. These are easy to build: first I sledgehammer three circular fencing poles two feet into the ground some three feet apart to form a triangle some five feet high, you can use four poles to form a square if you wish and then staple chicken wire around the poles to form a cage, remembering not to drive the staples fully home so they can be easily removed later. I overlay the netting by a few inches and secure lightly so they can be opened easily if need be. And job’s done, all that’s needed is to throw the leaves in and then refill again, and then forget about them for a year or two whilst nature does its work. Building a number of these bins ensures a continuous supply of leaf-mould each year which in some horticultural quarters has been described as ‘the caviar of the compost world’.
I have some ten bins, some reserved just for the copious amounts of beech leaves we gather each year, one or two reserved for leaves such as the leathery old leaves of the magnolia grandiflora which take aeons to break down. The bins stand natural and inconspicuous in the woodland area but any old place can be used, an old compost heap or a corner between two walls
Charlie and Bones gather the bulk of the estate leaves in the large trailer and throw them onto the pile between two walls of the old stable. This pile has stood there for years now, there’s nothing fancy about it, anything and everything gets thrown in, including whole branches which in time will melt away. Cook mentions, rather mischievously, that a gardener disappeared once, never to be seen again, but the last anyone saw of him he was digging in this pile for leaf-mould…