The Annual Leaf Pilgrimage

The end of the Annual Leaf Pilgrimage has arrived. If anyone reading this gardens, you probably know about mulching to preserve moisture and keep weeds down around plants and in a garden. Well, if you have never used them, leaves are a great way to mulch, and they act as a slow fertilizer when they break down. So every fall since I was a kid (and that was some time ago!) we have always gone around the neighborhoods in my city and collected leaf bags from anyone who put them out for the city to pick up. As you may have gathered from previous blog posts, my mother is a big gardener, and since she is happy to help take care of my yard as well as her own, I am more than happy to help her get leaves each fall. This annual drive-around usually takes a couple of weekend days, usually in mid- to late-November. My mother also has particular taste in leaves; not just any will do! These pictured are primarily Willow Oaks (in the south we usually call them Pin Oaks), Maple, some Red Oak, and various decorative trees such as Crepe Myrtles. Pin Oak is a favorite, since the leaves are narrow, which allows water to get to the ground through them, but they don’t break down too quickly, making them great for both moisture retention and mulching in garden rows. (The soil in our area is also unusual for NC, which is usually a bit acidic. Instead, we have more neutral to alkaline soil because of chalk that runs about 18 inches below ground. This means that the tannic acid in the oak leaves helps balance our soil, instead of causing problems.) Maples are fine; even though they are wider than Pin Oaks, they are also quicker to break down, and they don’t matte up to prevent water from getting through. Red Oak, Pecan, and others like that are okay, though they are not the premium leaves. The types we’ll just leave out are White Oak, Sycamore, or Magnolia. They are just too big and won’t break down easily, which makes them bad for both letting water through, and for fertilizing mulch (and walking on them isn’t great either). Using leaves is a lot cheaper and better for the soil than buying landscaping mulch, so Mom wants about 200 bags of leaves each fall. The main difficulty is getting them to fit into the shed! (We did pretty good this year.)

Building a Terraced Garden

I started building gardens because my mom has always been a big gardener, and I never wanted to do all the upkeep it takes, but I love planning and building things. So I started building new garden areas for her to plant and upkeep. It meant I got to do what I love, and she got to do what she loved, so everyone was happy! (Dad went along with it, since he likes figuring out how to build things, too!) I started about 20 years ago by building a couple of ponds and designing walkways for the back yard, then made a rock wall about 2 years later that used about 13 tons of rocks, and just kept going. I do a lot of the planning and physical labor, with Dad helping with problem areas. So for this entry, I’ll describe the first half of building a terraced garden on a steep hill at the back of the property. One thing I always do is use whatever we have around to build with, so that we buy as little as possible. I think it also makes the finished product look more natural. So this garden started with a really overgrown hill about 20-25 feet down and about the same across. First the ivy and undergrowth had to be cleared, which was done by pulling it all up by hand. We really hate to use poison, and ivy will actually come up pretty well by just pulling it up. I’ll confess, I didn’t do this part (thanks Mom!).

After that, I planned out where the logs would go for terracing. For pictures of this process, check out my Gallery page, and you can get an idea of how steep and big this space is. There was a lot of precarious balancing when I was digging in the first places for logs. Once I had a platform dug for a log, I rolled or moved it down from above, and then put in rebar to hold the rest of the logs in place. Generally, I did 3 or 4 logs up to create a terrace. Once these spaces were created, I threw down dirt from the top to fill in the new space. There were also some small terraces I created to have smaller areas to plant down the hill. One of the things I like to do is look at the shape of the space, and work with it. I don’t try to force my own design on the land, but just look at what is already there, and make it a little easier to plant. I also built a staircase from old pieces of slab concrete, some of them from when my parents moved into the house (my dad grew up on a farm, you don’t throw away useful stuff😉).  For the staircase, I dug platforms into the hillside, starting at the top, put one of the slabs in place, then worked my way down the hill, building stairs as I went. I would slide the heavy concrete pieces down beside the staircase as I got further down, some of the bottom ones were probably about 100 pounds.

Once all of the stairs were in place, I built some more terraces along the side for planting areas. The final addition was putting in the railing about 6 months later, using uprights driven into the hill, and screwing on tree limbs from fallen trees to create the rail (Dad does the drilling; at under 5 feet tall, I have some problems with leverage!). It worked out pretty well!

If you are considering doing something like this, the main thing to keep in mind is to plan, plan, plan. It is a lot easier to adjust what you want to do later, if you have planned the steps to get there from the start. ‘Winging it’ rarely works out well, or at least involves a lot of cursing!

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