The Cycle of Leaf

Our property sits on the edge of a national park in the northern part of Sydney and our north facing passive solar house is perched above the tree tops and was built to take full of advantage of the surrounding bushland views.

When you scan the valley in the late afternoon, you can’t help but notice how the recent rain has breathed new life into the bush. From the top of the trees with their new cover of bright soft foilage to the micro scale of a zillion delicate spider’s webs it’s obvious the ecosystem is in full operation.

While this is a beautiful thing, as most Sydney-siders will attest, we’ve actually had enough of the rain. We’ve had the wettest January since 2001 and last year we got 1706mm of rain in our local area, 600mm above average.  That’s a lot of rain and a lot of it fell in November and now I suddenly understand why the leaves on my zucchinis and cucumbers melted!

The main trees in the bush near our house are eucalpyt and angophoras – both evergreens.  We love living here amongst the trees but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Unlike deciduous trees, evergreens don’t shed their leaves in one hit but rather rain a constant supply of leaves down into the garden. Bark peeling occurs in Summer and coincides with an increase in leaf fall and evergreens also produce a lot of sap that’s why they are collectively known as ‘gum’ trees.

The majority of our gum trees lie at the bottom of our block, directly below our veggie garden. This is our Permaculture Zone V which is an unfenced natural bushland area that runs into the national park. From time to time we remove the deep litter piles that accummulate beneath the trees in this area to reduce the fuel load and risk of fire. We also collect other fallen leaves, twigs and branches from the rest of the property including in and around our vegie garden. But what do we do with all those leaves?

Like most people in Sydney, we used to ship our leaves and smaller cuttings off-site through our local Council’s green waste service but by applying the permaculture design principles ‘produce no waste’ and ‘use small and slow solutions’, we’ve turned a previous problem of an abundance of leaves into a sustainable resource by recycling leaves to make our own mulch and compost.

Organic compost is one of the best fertilisers you can use to feed both your plants and soils so producing your own makes complete sense. Nutrient rich soils help to grow the strongest, most pest resistant plants but from time to time, soils need to be replenished to maintain healthy levels of essential nutrients and minerals and a good soil structure.

You can put fresh gum leaves straight into your compost bin but you’ll have to wait a long time for them to break down due to the high levels of natural oils and tough leaf structure. We want a quicker turn-around so we put ours through a shredder turning it into fine leaf mulch. We then put the leaf mulch on the swale-paths in our vegie garden and also around our native plants.

The benefits of mulch in your garden are endless. It reduces soil erosion and provides nutrients to the soil making it healthier by increasing microbial  and worm actvity. It insulates plant roots and helps to keep the weeds down and also helps to retain moisture around plants which means less watering. It also looks great.

Our chooks helping distribute leaf mulch in the front yard

As soon as the leaf mulch is laid down it’s exposed to the elements and starts decomposing. Micro-organisms, worms and bugs quickly move in and get straight to work helping break it down further.

After a while, when the leaf matter has sufficiently decayed it becomes what is called humus and humus is really a type of mature compost.

We noticed that the leaf mulch on the path in our vegie garden broke down very quickly so we keep it topped up with leaf mulch. As it decays we either leave it in-situ to support herbs and small plants along the edges of the path or use it as an ingredient in our compost tumber.

leaf mulch supporting many functions on the path in the vegie garden

Once the compost is made, we add it to the veggie garden to help build healthy soil and provide nutrients to grow strong healthy plants.

So there you have it, the complete cycle – the Cycle of Leaf! It simply goes like this…

SOIL = PLANTS = LEAVES = MULCH = COMPOST = HUMUS = SOIL = PLANTS = LEAVES etc etc!

Nature plus a little bit of human intervention allows for extraordinarily simple solutions. And to think for all those years we were throwing away one of our most valuable assets.

Stay tuned for my next post on….scrumping!

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