Learning from the Leaves

IMG_20131129_111317_372Every time my four-year old sons pass a pile of leaves they look up at me excitedly with a lilt in their voice. “Mom, it’s still fall!” they exclaim with wonder as they jump or kick their way through the crunch and squish of the pile. Kids seem to understand the magic of fallen leaves. Adults tend to see leaves as something to gather into a trash pile. But children have a way of reminding adults of the things we’ve grown to overlook.

A few days ago on the Boiled Down Juice Facebook page we shared a news piece called “Leave the Leaves,” a short essay on the importance of choosing not to discard your leaves each year. The author, Lee Riech, discusses how his neighbors have been giving him their bags full of leaves which he’s been dumping on his home garden: “But dried, dead leaves contain stored energy,” he writes, “the sun’s energy. Put them on or in the soil, as I have been doing, and they release their energy to support the growth and activity of fungi, earthworms and other soil organisms. Mostly, these are friendly creatures, and nurturing them allows them to thwart unfriendly organisms, such as those causing some plant diseases.”

For a host of complex cultural reasons we’ve come to value manicured lawns more than healthy soil, forgetting that these leaves fall to the ground each autumn for a reason. These days it’s considered routine to bag up dried leaves in large plastic bags and then turn around and spend money in the spring for a prepackaged version of compost and fertilizer, which is pretty much the exact same thing your leaves will create when left on their own. After doing a little research I learned that some cities are cutting back on leaf collection in an effort to reduce city budgets, asking homeowners instead to run over their leaves with a lawnmower, a simple process that shreds the leaves and speeds decomposition. But there’s no need to wait for a city ordinance to make a decision to boost your soil’s health.

Inspired my sons’ love for leaves and the afore mentioned article, I asked readers how they use their own piles of leaves and/or how they remember people addressing leaves in the days before plastic trash bags. A few people mentioned burning leaves, something I recall from my own childhood. But are there other options? Phil Wanzer of Russellville says that he keeps a corner in his backyard where he stacks his leaves sky high. “I put a piece of plywood with a cement brick on top and smash it down,” he says. “Within a year or less I have the blackest dirt you can imagine at the bottom of the pile.” He notes that it helps speed the process to water the leaf pile in the summers when watering other plants.


Layers of leaves at the future home of the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action.

Miranda Jackey, formerly of Fayetteville and now living in Portland, says that she “piles them on top of the flower bed to keep the bulbs warm in the winter, prevent weeds in the early spring, and add good dead stuff to your soil.” Rhonda Owen of North Little Rock says that she keeps a large bin in her yard where she dumps the leaves each fall. “I use it as mulch around the shrubs,” she writes. She also shared information about her grandfather’s garden, noting that he piled his leaves behind his nearly two-acre plot.  “He sometimes used them as mulch,” she writes, but what he loved to do was plant potatoes in the leaf pile. He always managed to harvest a few from it.”

How do you make use of your leaves each year? How did your older relatives handle leaves when you were a child? We’d love to hear your stories and share your tips and ideas with readers and keep the information on hand at the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action. Thanks so much for reading!


The Seed and the Story is a partnership with theCourier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.