Under the leaves

Sunday, 03 June 2012

Leaves from Liquidambar styraciflua in my garden in late autumn

I love the look of fallen autumn leaves, giving a colourful seasonal cloak to the garden as they flutter onto lawns, borders and paths, but even I have to concede that there comes a time when they need to be raked up - especially when they start to become matted and slippery after rain such as we have experienced this weekend. Smaller leaves - such as those from the crepe myrtle and Japanese maples - can be raked up and put directly around shrubs and larger perennials, where they will break down over time to form a nutritious layer of humus for the soil. Larger leaves, however - like the ones from my huge Liquidambar tree (pictured) - get put through a shredder onto our compost heap. The ones that fall onto garden beds can start to suffocate small plants, as I have discovered this past week.

My little rake, with Nerine bowdenii in bloom

I have just purchased a sturdy miniature rake (actually intended for children) for the purpose of gently combing these leaves from various plants in nearby garden beds that have been choked in recent weeks. My paternal grandmother - of very slight build - used a set of such children's garden tools her entire life; and our large rake is unsuitable for getting in between dense plantings. Under the leaves, I discovered all sorts of activity going on, which made me feel guilty for not having got rid of them sooner.

Buds of Helleborus foetidus

In one area, I found the buds of a Helleborus foetidus forming. This was exciting, as it is the first time this particular hellebore has been mature enough to bloom. It finely dissected leaves and flowers like bunches of small green cups. I have had a gold-leaved version ('Gold Bullion') for a few years so it is nice to also have the plain green-leaved one as well. These hellebores do reasonably well in Sydney's climate in sun or part shade, and provide welcome winter flowers that last for ages throughout winter and into early spring. Where they are happy, they will self-seed - which is a good thing as the original plant will probably only last a few years.

Jonquil shoots in late autumn

Further along in the same garden bed I found little shoots of snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum) poking through - again covered with a layer of leaves, so I cleared these away in a hurry. These are a cultivar called 'Gravetye Giant' that I was given by a friend years ago - they grow taller than the usual species and have a larger flower. There were also jonquil leaves starting to peep through the earth: one bulb even seems to have a flower bud on it already.

Self-sown seedlings of Nigella damascena in late autumn

Elsewhere I uncovered seedlings of self-sown spring annuals that were being engulfed by leaves, and I don't think they would have survived much longer under this blanket. I love these 'volunteer' plants that turn up every year, as I don't deliberately plant many annuals any more. Some of those that I found were seedlings of the white-flowered variegated-leaf form of honesty (Lunaria annua); the delightfully ferny-foliage Orlaya grandiflora, which is like a small version of Queen Anne's lace; tiny forget-me-not seedlings (Myosotis sylvatica); and hundreds of delicate baby plants of love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), which all originate from one single plant I was given a few years ago. I usually thin out all these seedlings, heartbreaking though it is, so that those which remain can grow robustly. I do try to remember to give them an occasional dose of liquid fertiliser to help them develop.

Come spring, when my bulbs and annuals bloom, I will be glad I got busy with my little rake in autumn!