Practical Permaculture – Only the Oak Leaves Remain

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The snow is falling… Only the Oak leaves remain… Winter is calling…
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This post was born from the haiku above… I never intended to write a permaculture post…

Wait a second… Why do the Oak leaves remain…

Walking through the woods after a winter snow… Silence… Just the crunching of snow under your boots as you walk… In the wind you hear the sound of leaves rattling together… But all the leaves are covered in snow… A closer inspection of the sound will most likely reveal a tree that is covered in dead leaves… Leaves that are hanging on for dear life in the cold winter winds…

Long after all other trees lose their leaves in the winter, the dead leaves of an Oak Tree remain. This trait is extremely helpful in identification, often remaining until the buds break in the spring. This retention of dead plant matter is known as marcascence, and it is a genius evolutionary trait that I am going to try and explain.

In autumn, shortening day length tells the deciduous trees that it is time to stop growing. The tree then forms a layer of cells at the base of each leaf. This is called the abscission layer, it slows and finally stops the flow of sap to the leaf. Once the sap stops flowing the leaves lose chlorophyll and all the reds, yellows, and oranges that the green chlorophyll was hiding becomes visible.

Oak trees tend to be variable in this leaf retention, young trees will remain covered… while older trees may shed the top leaves, but retain much of the bottom… I’m not sure if many people pay close enough attention to the trees around them, but these leaves last until early spring. This is because the abscission layer forms much later on Oaks than on other trees. Though the leaves may look like they are nothing more than a fluke, there are actually many theories as to why this occurs.

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“November 23rd – Hangin’ in There” – The last speck of color waiting for the snow… Underneath the fading suns pale winter glow…

One theory is the leaves act as a browsing shield from deer. In the deep winter when foraging is difficult and scarce, deer will target the young buds and branches of trees. The leaves that remain are very tough and prevent the deer from finding the tender oak buds. Another theory is that the tannin-rich dead oak leaves have a taste deer find unpleasant and therefore avoid the trees altogether.

Another is frost and wind protection. The new buds on a tree can be damaged by extreme cold and wind chills, leaves are retained to protect them. I don’t know if I am a fan of this theory, Oak trees have successfully flourished in extremely cold winters for a long time. This idea just seams like a stretch to me. Maybe possible on southerly oaks growing towards the northern end of their range… But still a stretch…

Lastly… And the theory I agree with… Spring nutrients and compost… In the early spring the forest floor is sprouting with life. Many spring plants are germinating through the partially composted leaves of last year. Around the same time the gardeners are putting down spring mulch, the oak tree drops its leaves. These leaves serve many purposes, but the obvious is to keep weeds to a minimum.

In nature, the leaves that fall to the forest floor in the autumn are slowly broken down. The freeze and thaw cycles of winter pulverize the leaves to a point where the previous years seed can germinate through them with ease. Normally these plants would finish the leaf decomposition as they grow, but the mighty oak has other plans with its leaves.

I find it interesting that many of those leaves remain right up to the spring weed push. These freshly fallen leaves help keep undergrowth to a minimum. As they break down over the summer they provide surface nutrients during a time when they would otherwise be scarce.

Regardless of the theory you choose, you have to admit marcascence is a cool trait. The idea that the leaves that stay on the tree through winter are their for a reason, is really something special. It is important to mention that you will not find this on every Oak tree, it is not uncommon to find one tree that has retained many of its leaves among twenty that did not. The variable nature of marcascence is what makes it such a mystery. A mystery that nature has yet to give up…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

This site… And all the photographs and information presented within are provided free of charge by the author… I am not affiliated with any product or business… Only myself… Writing this blog takes a ton of time… If you find any of this information helpful, please consider purchasing a print from my online store… It is obviously not a requirement… But it helps…

I sell prints of my photography here – http://www.society6.com/chriscondello Or you can contact me directly at c.condello@hotmail.com for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

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Practical Permaculture – Leaf Raking Alternatives

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“Be Different” – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Wilkinsburg, PA

Autumn, is steadily drifting towards us. The distant scent of leaves is now noticeable in the wind, signaling to me that the summer months are quickly coming to an end… A sign that my garden preparations for next year are just getting ready to begin…

During the winter months there is not enough light or water for photosynthesis to occur, trees rest and live off the food they stored in the summer months. The chlorophyll begins to disappear from the leaves as the bright green coloring fades, we begin to see yellow, orange, and even red colors. Small amounts of these colors have been present all along, we just can’t see them in the summer because they are covered by chlorophyll.

Leaves are just one example of nature’s food factories. Trees take water from the ground using roots, and carbon dioxide from the air using their leaves… When sunlight is added, the water and carbon dioxide are converted into glucose and oxygen… Plants use glucose as food for energy and as a building block for growth. The way plants turn water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugar is called photosynthesis. Chlorophyll helps make photosynthesis happen, it is also what gives plants their green color.

So now we know what all is involved in the creation of a leaf, and we know why they change colors. As summer ends and autumn comes, the days will continue to get shorter… And soon the leaves will begin to fall from the trees…

Knowing everything that goes into that leaf… It would be such a waste to bag them all up and send them to the landfill…

Trees mine minerals from the earth, and in exchange return starches and sugars in the form of leaf fall. To eliminate this organic material from beneath your tree will not eliminate the needs of the tree, it will increase the supplemental nutrient needs of your tree… And the gardens/lawn surrounding it.

Now, I’m perfectly aware that most of us can’t let our leaves lay on our manicured suburban lawns. Modern ordinances and neighborhood associations often strictly prohibit “yard waste” of any kind, creative thinking is often the only way around this.

WandLeavesFall

“First Frost 2012” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA

The supreme reign of the leaf rake as the autumn tool king is over… All hail the mulching lawn mower!

I cannot stress enough the importance… And versatility of owning a mulching/bagging lawn mower… As far as shredding leaves and garden waste is concerned, it will handle anything other than woody/shrubby material… That is where my urban hugelkutur link comes in handy…

The simplest method I use, is to simply run over the leaves with a mulching lawn mower set on its highest wheel height. Depending on the amount/depth of the leaves, this can be a very slow process. My suggestion is to mow on a regular basis while the leaves are still falling from your tree, this way your mower does not stress out under the extra load of the additional material. If the leaves do not entirely disappear during your first pass, simply continue to run them over until they do. I can typically reduce a yard full of leaves into barely noticeable, 1/2″ – 1″ pieces in a few quick passes when this is done on a regular basis.

Another option I have employed in the past, is to use the bagging option of the lawn mower to collect the leaves. Patience is often required using this method as you have to proceed very slowly, move forward a few feet, then drag the mower back over the same spot. As I fill the bags up with organic goodness, I simply dump them at the base of a tree… Or in a garden… When I am finished with the job, I carefully spread it around the base of the tree. By spring, this material will shrink considerably… Spread it out around your tree and mow as usual… Or use it to mulch/top dress your garden.

Yet another option is to place the material in a pile in an inconspicuous area of your yard. Regular flipping of this pile will speed decomposition, in the spring, you add it to your gardens before you begin to plant. I personally like to cover my gardens in this material immediately, and allow it to slowly break down in place. This serves several purposes including winter weed and erosion control, protection of tender perennials, and eventual nutrients… But most importantly for me. is that it discourages cats from crapping in my bare garden soil… Which in my neighborhood… Is priceless…

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“Community Aster” – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Wilkinsburg, PA

The colors of fall are something we all see as eye candy… But once those leaves litter our yards, we typically only see them as work. I believe we should see them as a valuable garden resource that just falls from the sky. The leaves in our yards are essentially gifts from the heavens… Like manna in the Book of Numbers… Arriving with the dew of the night…

As far as many of our urban shade trees are concerned… The leaves are the only physical yield we can regularly harvest from them…

Why would we send that to the landfill? At the very least they should be piled up and composted, if done correctly a pile of leaves can be garden ready by spring. Even if you do absolutely nothing to the pile, letting it sit all winter… It will still be great garden material… And that… Is one of the physical benefits of a shade tree… Likewise, when those leaves are placed in a vegetable garden… The nutrients provided affect another physical yield… Vegetables…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

This site… And all the photographs and information presented within… Are provided free… I am not affiliated with any product or business… Only myself…

I do however sell prints of some of my photography here – http://www.society6/chriscondello… Or you can contact me directly at c.condello@hotmail.com for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.