Balancing on a see saw

This garden around my house is both part of a natural system and an interruption of it.

Take nature’s system of feeding the soil with fallen leaves- a perfect cycle that we interrupt every fall when we blow all those leaves into the street to keep our yards looking tidy—Of course it makes sense to use these leaves in our gardens and not send them off, but how to manage the enormous piles that accumulate every November out front?

For a few years, we’ve tried a variety of methods for shredding these leaves so they would lay neat and flat on garden beds like traditional mulch. The small reel mower we use to cut the patch of grass in our front yard can’t handle the twigs mixed in with the leaves. The electric leaf vacuum gets stuck with larger branches, and the gas mower with bag attached works well, but feels wrong to me. How much good can we be doing burning up nature’s fossil reserves to mimic nature’s fertilizing system?

Last fall we decided to just rake all the leaves into the beds and leave them there. In November, I spent a lot of time trying to get my eyes to appreciate the look of garden beds piled high with leaves. The dry leaves blew out of the beds and back on the paths for weeks. Edges disappeared, and many evergreen ground covers like our Phlox stolinifera got buried in a pile of brown. The garden looked messy.

A couple of months later, snow and wet have packed down the leaves. Messy is gone, replaced by a frozen crust. In another couple of months, we’ll shift our concern from aesthetics to logistics as we try to figure out how to efficiently break up the matted leaves so they decompose and don’t create a temporary barrier between the soil and the air and water above it.

Organic garden is perpetually experimental- a balancing act on the pivot of a see saw that tips on one side towards humility in the face of natural systems and on the other towards the arrogance that makes one want to shape those systems to meet our needs and desires.