On the Importance of Autumn Leaves: a Guide to Leaf Foraging

Written by Manu


Last week, Jacinta and spent the day foraging for dried deciduous leaves in Blackheath (in the Upper Blue Mountains). Autumn has been a very warm (or non-existent) and leaves are only now starting to fall down in spades. Their colours are wonderful: Japanese maples, red oaks, liquidambars with their shades of bright red, beech and chestnut leaves and their golden yellows, white oaks, maples and plane trees and their different shades of brown. It is a true feast for the eyes. 

Walking around in the Blue Mountains in Autumn, one cannot help but notice the abundance of deciduous leaves falling in parks and gardens, but also onto bare asphalt on footpaths and streets. One minute they are there, and the next, they have been swept up by council trucks and transported to who knows where. If you look around, you will find the odd forager, with her/his bags or buckets and rakes, sweeping the precious leaves off the asphalt into their containers and making excellent use of them in their gardens by adding them to their composts. 

This is what we were up to a few days ago. After all, dried leaves are a wonderful high carbon input for your compost. They are alive and teeming with beneficial microbes and, most importantly, completely free! There is, however, a leaf foraging etiquette. It’s important, if you see a fellow forager, to go and have a chat and make sure you are sharing the bounty in an equitable way. Seasoned leaf foragers know how important dried leaves are to gardens and parks, and do not forage in them. Instead, they choose asphalt surfaces in quiet streets, which have less or no petrol contamination. They also tend to rake any residuous leaves back into nearby verge gardens or parks, and leave the space tidy.

As a student training in soil microbiology, I can safely say that removing leaves from parks and gardens is a bit of a waste of energy and time. Leave them be, they are an essential part of maintaining soil healthy and alive with beneficial bacteria and fungi. Nature is doing all of the work for you by dropping leaves, which will act as mulch and then decompose into garden goodness. Leaf litter is the largest source of organic matter that enters mainstream ecosystems as it slowly turns into humus. It feeds a huge variety of beneficial organisms from microscopic ones to larger arthropods and earthworms. 

If you wanted, you could speed up the process of decomposition by going over them with your lawn mower, but, really, ‘leaf’ them be (pun intended). It has now been proven that old growth forests are by far the most productive ecosystems in the world, and the highest recorded rates of decomposition occur in cool temperate climates, in the winter, under the snow. Surprised? Well yes, it is surprising but true. This is largely due to autumn leaves, which provide insulation as well as a rich food source for decomposers.

Dried leaves are very rich in cellulose and lignin, which is predominantly decomposed by fungi. Fungi are (among many other things) responsible for the production of glomalin, the sticky glue that gives good soil its excellent structure and ability to retain water.

Many people know about the importance of bacteria in soil, but few people know that you need bacteria and fungi in equal parts to be growing annual vegetables. If you have more bacteria than fungi in you soil, you will be growing early successional grassy weeds as that is the environment they favour. Most vegetable prefer mid-successional soils with equal amounts of bacteria and fungi.

So how do you make sure you have enough beneficial fungi in your soil? Become a leaf forager, rescue leaves from the streets and add an abundance of leaf litter and woody materials to your compost. 

A quick note on eucalyptus leaves and pine needles: they contain anti-bacterial oils, so it is best to let them sit for a little while before using them. After these oil have leached out, use them in your compost! If they are fresh, you can still use them, but in moderation.

As a budding leaf forager, identifying different trees and their leaves is helpful. As with everything, the more variety in your leaf litter, the more variety of microorganisms you will have in your compost and soil. I have found http://www.tree-guide.com to be an awesome resource, and I am currently working on a poster to help you identify different leaves.

In the Blue Mountains, you will find an abundance of liquidambars, white and red oaks, and japanese maples. These are all fantastic foraging leaves. So, get out there and become a leaf forager!

Freshly made compost in Lyttleton Gardens using foraged leaves.

Freshly made compost in Lyttleton Gardens using foraged leaves.

Foraged leaves in onion bags next to Toby the Lyttleton compost tumbler. One part scraps from the shop, three parts dried leaves!

Foraged leaves in onion bags next to Toby the Lyttleton compost tumbler. One part scraps from the shop, three parts dried leaves!

Californian Poppies are Much More Than a Gorgeous Edible Flower

Californian poppy,  Eschscholzia californica

Californian poppy, Eschscholzia californica


written by Sarah Mann, Naturopath

I was visiting Canberra recently and driving through the suburbs had the wonderful surprise of passing rows and rows of pavement and front lawn and gardens bright with the orange glow of the Californian Poppy. It was a beautiful sight to see so many happily at home in people’s gardens.

The Californian Poppy is part of the Papaveraceae family and used in Herbal Medicine. Unlike it’s opiate fellows, Californian poppies contain non-narcotic opium alkaloids amongst it’s medicinal constituents.

An insight into the Californian Poppy’s therapeutic nature is seen in watching the way they move with the wind. It is as if the flowers absorb the impact of the breeze and channel it into a smooth, consistent, buffered, calm sway. Californian Poppy when used medicinally is calming. It is a calming sedative and an anodyne, relieving pain.

Californian Poppy’s pain relieving actions assist many types of pain especially neuralgia, period pain, tooth ache, and pain from trauma, accident and injury. It is especially suited to pain where there is clenching, upset and agitation, and for pain that causes difficulty sleeping.

Californian Poppy is used for insomnia and sleep troubles, it’s calming and relaxing action supporting the let go needed for easing into a restful sleep. Californian Poppy is indicated especially where sleep trouble is caused by over stimulation or nightmares.

Californian Poppy is used particularly when there is agitation in it’s many forms and faces , like hyperactivity and agitation with pain. Californian Poppy is helpful where there is fixed and unyielding mental perspectives, helping the person to make shifts and changes from a calm and centred point, relieved of agitation with space for new thoughts and ideas to emerge.

Californian Poppy is bitter and cool in quality. Like we see with it’s action in the wind, Californian Poppy buffers stimulation and aggravation, streaming it into a calm and collected response. 

Yarrow Gardens: Building a Food Forest From Scratch

Yarrow Gardens: Manu's back yard in the Lower Blue Mountains. In this shot, you can see Tuscan kale, yarrow, mugwort, rosemary, chamomile, dandelion, statice, broccoli, nigella, french sorrel, valerian, loquat tree, dwarf avocado, carrot and sweet potato.

Yarrow Gardens: Manu's back yard in the Lower Blue Mountains. In this shot, you can see Tuscan kale, yarrow, mugwort, rosemary, chamomile, dandelion, statice, broccoli, nigella, french sorrel, valerian, loquat tree, dwarf avocado, carrot and sweet potato.

In this post, I wanted to speak a little bit about my process setting up Yarrow Gardens: my home food forest in Lapstone, which sits on a standard, quarter acre block. I'm hoping this post will help those of you in suburban and peri-urban environments get started growing regeneratively in your back yards.

I live in the lower Blue Mountains, which has a warm temperate/subtropical climate, very different to Lyttleton Gardens, which sits between warm temperate and cool temperate.

When we first moved into our standard quarter-acre block, the sloped back yard was composed of three tiers of impacted, eroded, sandy, shallow soil covered in couch grass. Couch grass seemed to be the only plant resilient enough to grow in this depleted, eroded soil. A beautiful, twenty meter Eucalyptus tree stands tall in the middle of the yard, and friends and family assured me I would never be able to grow anything successfully because of it. I didn't know much about growing things at the time and my dreams of a veggie patch and fruit trees seemed close to impossible.

It was then that I embarked on my Permaculture studies, learning about ecology, microbiology, climatology, soil restoration, regenerative farming, holistic management and regenerative design. I slowly gained enough of an understanding of natural systems to be able to make conscious decisions about where to plant, what to plant, when to plant it, how to regenerate my soil and care for my little patch of topsoil.

My perspective had changed. I no longer saw plants as 'good or bad,' as I could finally understand the function of each plant within an ecological system. 'Weeds' were no longer evil, annoying plants to be pulled out, but rather resilient pioneers in charge of quickly protecting and attempting to restore bare soil after a disturbance. In a natural forest ecosystem, there is no bare soil, and that is largely thanks to their hard work.

The great big majestic gum tree was no longer a nuisance, but rather a canopy tree to be incorporated as such into my design. Being a medicinal plant lover, being able to pick medicinal plants straight from the garden to chuck into my kettle was one of my goals, along with having a good continuous supply of fresh fruits, berries and vegetables.

My partner Steve and I rented a rotary hoe and used its shallowest setting to uproot the couch grass. I got hold of about ten cubic meters of good aged mushroom compost (always check the pH as it can be way too alkaline) which I generously covered the soil with (about 15cm), followed by a good layer of locally sourced wood chip. This allowed me to begin planting and kick-started the process of restoring the soil by adding some organic matter.

Stage one

Stage one

Six months later

Six months later

Twelve months later

Twelve months later

The tree you can see in the top photograph is mugwort, a medicinal bush that I shape into a tree. It was a tiny seedling when I first put it in and grew very vigorously. I also bought some dwarfed or small trees to form an understory layer such as loquat, avocado, banana and pawpaw. For shrubs, I bought seedlings of fast growing plants like golden fruit of the Andes, wormwood, native ginger, Mediterranean herbs, perennial basil, midjim berries, acacias,  native mint, lemon verbena, comfrey, yarrow, and nettle. I broadcast seeds of nigella, roman chamomile, cornflowers, brahmi, silverbeet, echinacea, parsley, valerian, parsnip, carrot, daikon, chives, wild rocket, red sorrel, radish, warrigal greens and planted bulbs of potato onion, perennial leeks, Egyptian walking onion and garlic.

I installed drip irrigation last spring to make sure the soil was always kept moist enough for fungi, bacteria and earthworms throughout dry summers. Worm castings, seaweed solution, homemade compost and wood chips we my sole inputs for about a year. I also started inoculating my seeds with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (powder mixed with a little water) just before broadcasting and inoculated all my legume seeds with the appropriate bacterial inoculant (see my previous post on Nitrogen fixation).

We finally incorporated chickens into our system in the middle tier, where they are rotated to a different area every 8 months. They are fed grains and medicine from our garden as well as some bought organic feed. Their poo feeds and accelerates my compost, their eggs are a nutrient powerhouse for us. The system is thriving with minimal external inputs. We have nuts, fruits, berries, green veggies, eggs, potatoes, sweet potatoes and much, much more, providing us with a diverse, balanced diet. I occasionally foliar spray my plants with fish emulsion (fermented fish guts) and whole cows milk to keep them strong and healthy, but barely need to add anything to my food forest soil.

I feel good knowing that all of my perennial edibles and medicinals are storing carbon in the soil for the long term, while annuals growing among them are harvested regularly. Peanuts, potatoes, sweet potatoes, herbs and veggies now pop up on their own. If anything were to happen, we would have the ingredients to a balanced diet and fresh rainwater at our doorstep. An important element in hindsight was building paths throughout our food forest and maintaining them, for easy access and harvesting. I would say the process of building a balanced, productive system takes more or less 4 years, but as you can see in the pictures above, you can do a great deal in just 12 months with careful observation.

I want everybody to experience the joy of building their own little thriving ecosystem, providing refuge for wildlife, insects and microbes, whilst harvesting a bounty of produce. I hope this little blog post will provide you with some inspiration and tools to carefully observe your site and work with its specific conditions to design a healthy little food forest of your own.

Edible flowers

Calendula and german chamomile flowers.

Calendula and german chamomile flowers.

After a longer-than-usual break from blogging I am back. It has been a busy month. Organising our backyard permaculture retrofit has been an absolute pleasure. We will definitely be running one again. Such a wonderful way to connect Lawson and Blue Mountains locals and creating local community resilience. We are now sharing beautiful Red Ancona chickens with Ann, Mark and their children, who live two blocks down the road! Their food forest is well under way and they have a brand new vegetable patch, all built by local workshop participants. What a great way of creating circular, local economies!

Now that I have a little more time, I am focusing on my plan to convert the Lyttleton vegetable garden into a vegetable and edible (and medicinal) flower garden. We were lucky to inherit self seeded calendula and borage from the previous owner, but we've expanded our collection by adding dahlias (edible flowers and tubers), aquilegia (sweet edible flower), Californian poppies, rosellas, nasturtiums, violas, zinnias, okra, snapdragons, perennial beans, cornflowers, anise hyssop, mint bergamot, salvias, edible chrysanthemums, german chamomile, red clover, edible sweet lupin, and angelica. The result is an ever-flowering garden, where the buzzing of bees is so loud you may need to speak a little louder...

Shunjiku: edible chrysanthemum.

Shunjiku: edible chrysanthemum.

Common sage flowers.

Common sage flowers.

Nature's Ploughs

Linocut Print of Earthworms by Manu

Linocut Print of Earthworms by Manu

This is what Charles Darwin called them: nature's ploughs. Earthworms and composting worms are my all time superheroes. My research on these gorgeous wiggly beings has been quite extensive in the last month, and I have learned so much.

Worms have hearts. Up to five sets of them. Their blood contains hemoglobin like ours. Their skin is very sensitive to light, which is why they like to live under sun shades made of decaying leaves and organic matter. Their 'teeth' are sand and rock particles inside their super powerful, muscly gizzards, which grind up organic matter.

What do they eat? Bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa and organic matter: where there are earthworms, there are all of the above. Everything you need in a thriving soil food web. This alone makes it worth jumping up and down when you see them in your soil, but wait, there's more.

Soil passed through an earthworm has double the amount of organic matter it had before it went in. An acre of good soil contains two to three million of them, which can move about 18 tons of soil per year, over and over again. Doubling, tripling, quadrupling the amount of rich organic matter in your soil.

Worms also have special enzymes inside their gizzards which unlock chemical bonds chaining up nutrients. In other words, once these nutrients have traveled through a worm, they are finally in a form that plants have access to and eat. 

There are something like 7000 species of earthworms. Composting worms, such as the red Wriggler Eisenia fetida, prefer to live near the surface of soil, under leaf litter or mulch (or in your worm farm) in cool, moist, dark, oxygen-rich environments with a good amount of accessible food.

Deep-burrowing earthworms like Lumbricus terrestris are the ones that create horizontal or vertical tunnels going deeper underground, leaving space for oxygen, water and plant roots to easily penetrate the soil.

Their sensitive skin means they move out when synthetic fertilisers and glyphosate herbicides are used, subsequently leaving a gaping hole in the soil food web. No more worms, no more good microbes, a bit like the Brown Barbaloots moving out in Dr Seuss' The Lorax.

We need to look after these burrowing, shredding, wiggly, five-hearted beings with all our might.

August Winds

Most Blue Mountains locals are familiar with 'August winds': intense North-westerlies that sweep through the Mountains, tunneling down sides of houses and alleyways.

Lyttleton garden is currently suffering from a nasty case of August winds. Our little veggie patch has garden beds contouring a downward slope along the side of the shop. Strong winds tunnel down the hill, eroding the soil, drying it out, reducing it to powdery dust.

We luckily have a load of beautiful ready compost started by Cam a few months ago. I find myself adding a nice thick layer of it every week in August on the most affected garden beds at the top of the hill. I cover it with an aged, heavy woody mulch, as sugarcane or straw would instantly be blown away.

I began working on this garden exactly one year ago, and worriedly asked some locals if it was always this windy up here in Lawson. "Aaah, the August winds," they replied. Cam and I were eager to start growing things in this slopey garden, but also realised we needed to observe and interact with it first. Luckily the winds subsided in September.

I'm still learning this space one year on, and am plotting to take some lavender cuttings from my garden plants for us to strike tomorrow during our propagation workshop. We will be making our own propagation mix by mixing our sifted home made compost with sand, coir and worm castings from our worm farm. My lavender cuttings will be super happy in this mixture.

When ready, they will act as insect-attracting, fragrant windbreaks on the North Westerly side of Lyttleton garden. Hopefully in time for the next August winds.