Carolyn Singer: Falling leaves enrich the soil |

Carolyn Singer: Falling leaves enrich the soil

Easter dogwood (Cornus florida) is one of the best trees for fall color according to Carolyn Singer.
Photo by Carolyn Singer |

Before I begin writing I spend my early morning, as I most often do when it’s not too chilly, on the porch. October mornings are a treat. Gone are the days of summer when I must race to the edible garden before it gets too hot.

Always an inviting space to linger, to read, to observe quail, and to share with visitors, this porch faces east, the rising sun only the beginning of another treasured day.

This October day, in a meditative frame of mind, with time to observe, I linger on the porch. No sooner is the sun up than the powerful fragrance of the nearby silverberry (Elaeagnus pungens) fills the surroundings.

Soon it will have a hum to it, as honeybees nesting in a hollow of the black oak a few yards away feast on a final opportunity of the season. This fall bloomer begins the first week in October in my garden and usually continues flowering into November.

Fall foliage

An eastern dogwood (Cornus florida) near the other end of the porch is in full fall color. The leaves on this beautiful tree are not as easily blown off as some of the other deciduous trees notable for their fall splendor. The morning sun of October lights up the entire tree and for a few hours after sunrise it glows.

My attention is drawn to the hummingbirds now visiting the blue fall blossoms of the upright rosemary that dominates a small herb garden east of the porch. Usually more reserved, an acorn woodpecker shows up for breakfast at the feeder.

The porch is also where I enjoy the beauty of the fall harvest. A collection of shallots, garlic, and winter squashes fills a basket. I would add walnuts to this seasonal display, but the squirrels (and perhaps the bears) would find them.

This year the harvest of walnuts has been light, and I am not willing to share. I have seen evidence of both the bears and squirrels on my porch (when I am not looking).

As the leaves fall, I rake only those that cover a small patio and the stone walkway to the front door. Many areas where leaves fall do not need to be raked “clean.” When they fall at the base of shrubs, I cover the leaves with some compost to hold them in place and hasten decomposition.

If you do need to remove leaves, compost them. They will decompose with moisture and time. Adding your own compost or a commercial blend to the leaf pile creates a finished blend that may be used to improve clay soil at planting, or added on the soil surface as a mulch to conserve moisture in any season.

Do NOT burn your leaves. This adds to air pollution and wastes a precious natural resource.

Because I save seed of forget-me-nots and foxglove, I scatter these only after the leaves have fallen and compost spread, to ensure that the tiny seed is not covered too deeply. It will germinate with winter rains.

Gardening tips for fall

Today, in the garden, planting garlic and shallots is the highest priority. Some gardeners I know are well ahead of my planting schedule because their gardens are colder in fall.

I have always been successful at my elevation of 2,650 feet planting these edible bulbs well into November. However, if the weather changes quickly to colder nights, I may cover the planted area with a row cover.

Investment in good row covers pays off. You will find yourself using it both in fall through winter, or in the spring when frost threatens new plantings. A few degrees of increased warmth can make the difference between plant growth and failure.

Agribon offers different grades of protection and light penetration. The greatest degree of protection is the film that allows the least light, while the lightest protection allows the most light. A middle grade is also an option. Fall-planted edibles need as much light as possible.

However, if a very cold period occurs during the winter, using the film that affords the most protection may be a short-term solution for a few nights.

One year in February I removed the row cover over my garlic to pull weeds that were thriving in the warmth. To my delight, I discovered volunteer dill that had germinated with winter storms. Now I sow seed purposefully when I plant my garlic in fall, anticipating a mid-winter harvest of my favorite herb.

With very little effort on my part, at this time of the year I enjoy weeks of relaxed gardening in milder weather.

Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to Check out her website at

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