Nobody Knows Anything


The fascinating discussion we’ve been having here about fall leaves reminds me of nothing so much as screenwriter William Goldman’s famous line about Hollywood: "Nobody knows anything."

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people with great narrative instincts or a strategic grasp of the studio machinery or tremendous knowledge of the history of the movies.  It just means that when it comes to predicting what will be a hit, nobody knows anything.

Gardening is the same way.  It’s not that there are not people with fantastic stores of information and experience.  But when it comes to predicting what will work under the specific conditions of your yard in a specific year with its specific weather- and pest-related challenges?  Think William Goldman.

In gardening, conditions always vary!  So I think gardening advice is best couched in terms of simple principles rather than elaborate rules, and the principle we all seem to agree on is …don’t treat fall leaves like garbage, when they are clearly God’s way of enriching the soil. 

And don’t move them off your property and onto the tax rolls, as Terry Ettinger sensibly argues, if you can help it.

I fall into the "rake the leaves into the flowerbeds" camp.  I’m willing to pull umpteen maple seedings in spring in exchange for a free and easy soil amendment and the pleasant feeling that I’m in sync with the cycles of nature, rather than fighting them.

However, the really dramatic discovery for me a few years ago was the power of leafmold in my vegetable garden.  I was having terrible problems with weeds.  Ernie, the guy who’s mowed my lawn in the country for years, ever since my husband and I were too young and poor to be able to afford a lawn-mower, is pretty much a sage.  He said, leafmold, not grass products for weed suppression.   So I began sheet composting in fall, first a layer of alpaca bedding, then a truckload of ground-up sugar maple leaves Ernie took off his other, more foolish customers’ properties.

A few years of this has made the soil in my vegetable garden, which is boggy clay, absolutely magnificent.  By mid-summer, the beds are covered in worm castings.  And my garden is absurdly productive–more productive even than the garden I had when I actually lived in the house where the garden was.  I mean, ridiculously so.  I come home from the country on Sunday night with bags and bags and bags of beautiful food. I would have to quit my job and give away my children to process it all.

And the leafmold is just a terrific weed suppressant. 

Then, this year in spring, I noticed something odd.  I was having trouble with germination.  I’d push aside my mulch to put my seeds in the ground, as usual, and then maybe cover them again with a sprinkling of leaves. And only a few would come up.  It could have been just the beating rain we were having, since things were much more normal by mid-summer.

Or it might have been the fact that sugar maple leaves are such terrific weed-suppressants because they contain allelopathic compounds that discourage seed germination and growth.  If I had to do it over, I might really have pushed every leaf aside and turned over the soil a bit before tossing out a handful of arugula seeds.

But I probably won’t do it over, because I learned something else about leafmold this spring: It’s a lovely environment for ticks.  And for a few weeks in May, nobody went into my vegetable garden without coming back with Lyme disease.

Leafmold–amazing, wonderful stuff in the right vegetable garden.  But no longer in mine.  What gardening lesson can we draw from this?  After fifteen years of considering her vegetable garden the most important thing in her life after her family, Michele doesn’t know anything. 


  1. Michele, this is a fantastic piece. You’re so right that we know so much but know so little. We observe, learn and predict, but so often what seems tried and true ends up being so very wrong suddenly and unexpectedly. And, then we say “hmmm”, are humbled and the cycle begins again.

    I really appreciate your putting this into words — thanks!

  2. this is a good place to inject one of my favorite rants – about online gardenwriters, either bloggers or regular webmasters, who don’t tell readers where they fricking ARE. I know they’re doing it to try to increase their readership but it makes their advice utterly useless, imho.

  3. Yes, because (most unfortunately) I can’t stop myself from telling people what to do, I always try to add a “your mileage may vary” caveat and make my specific circumstances as clear as I can.

  4. The Fifth Dimension: In addition to the 3 dimensions of space and the 4th dimension of time in the garden, Mother Nature adds the 5th dimension with her unpredictability. When you garden, you are always making a bet with Mother Nature and sometimes she humbles us into thinking that we know nothing. And sometimes she’s right.

  5. Jeff Lowenfels in Teaming With Microbes notes that leaves are better used in perennial locations and not in the annual paradise that is a vegetable garden. It has something to do with encouraging fungi and not bacteria…believe it or not you want bacteria in the veg garden. I’m kinda like you, Michele: I put on the veg garden what I can get, and yes some leaf mold definitely gets in there but according to Jeff the grass clippings might be a better bet…they’re nitrogenous, break down faster, and don’t necessarily encourage fungal hyphae.

  6. To continue my rant, some gardening shows deliberately withhold info about where the damn garden is. Like “Landscape Smart”, for instance, and the really awful “Groundbreakers.” The designers will even sometimes say “in this climate” – but they’re not allowed to say “here in Atlanta” or wherever. As opposed to one of my favorite shows, “Landscaper’s Challenge,” which I keep sticking up for here because they tell you the budget AND the location, so it’s really useful stuff.

  7. El, I read Jeff Lowenfels book, too, and thought it was terrific, the best book about the soil that I’ve run across.

    However, when it comes to the advice in it–well, I just can’t completely trust somebody too fastidious to use manure.

    And while germination seems to be a problem in my vegetable garden, everything that gets going there goes gangbusters.

    The problem with straw and hay as a mulch is that they’re inevitably weedy themselves, unless you’ve set them aside for a year or two and allowed them to spoil.

    Since I idiotically began my garden with super-weedy barnyard manure–and since I’m only there to take care of it on the weekends–well, let’s just say I’m worried about my post-leafmold life

  8. Susan, on the landscaper’s challenge front…I’ll tell ya’ from experience, they don’t always give the real budget number. Seems they don’t make sure to gather the final number the client goes for on the project. Yet, I will agree they do a good job of communicating where the garden is.

  9. “After fifteen years of considering her vegetable garden the most important thing in her life after her family, Michele doesn’t know anything.”
    I respectfully disagree. Your post shows me that you know more than most. Far more. Alan Greenspan should know so much.

  10. I’ve picked up eight giant plastic garbage bags of leaves drivin through town, and that was only two trips to town. If I made that drive every day, I would’ve collected many more bags. Right now, we’ve two new areas of sod covered with old newspaper, chopped leaves and grass clippings. The garden changes, again.

  11. Philo & I were married and planting vegetable gardens when you were a kid, Michele, but never had pecan trees until we moved here a few years ago. “Nobody knows anything” is why we used those leaves in beds – now they go into a separate wire enclosure.

    If you’re interested, I wrote a post last fall about us old dogs learning about juglone with links to a few references.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  12. Wonderful post. Learning truly is an ongoing process. We dump the leaves blower bag contents (very finely chopped up leaves) on tho the lawn that the previous owners had in the front. The ajugas are spreading nicely – – lawn reduction is fun & beautiful.
    It is amazing all the shudders I get when folks see our mulchless veggie garden. The soil (compost added only; all organic) is like butter so weeding is a cinch.

  13. We had a neighbor with many years of gardening experience. With a country house in the Catskills and a city house in Saratoga Springs, she impressed her neighbors with a magnificent garden of reliable low maintenance and hardy perennials that were the envy of everyone. Her grass lawns were deep-rooted drought resistant and like her garden required no additional watering. Her plant varieties always returned usually a little bit later than her neighbors who supplemented their landscapes with fertilizers. Pine needles gathered from under her trees would be the only addition she would place around her acid loving plants.
    She is gone now and new owners with little time to bond with the natural order depend on the services of the professional decorators – unable to provide that landscape that will evolve and maintain itself.

    But we all know from the life and death of great American pastures – left alone, the forest always returns. So, while walking in the wood or through those truly wild and unattended natural secret gardens – like the sensitive habitats of morels and lady slippers, don’t expect the next season to be the same – without intervention of some degree.

  14. Rant number one:
    As Ginny’s comment says, not only is garden advice subject to the whims or Mother Nature, but as is true for nutrition, exercise, medicine, healthcare, etc. the “experts” regularly change their minds about the right way to garden. It wasn’t that long ago that tags on new plants told us to dig a hole twice as deep and wide as the plant and fill with planting mix, and I meet plenty of people that still think this is the right way to do it.

    Rant number two: (goes with your HOA post as well)
    Homeowners Association boards, who know nothing about plants but have the power to reject resident’s planting plans. They find a book like the Sunset Western Garden Book and treat it as divine scripture, not understanding that plant performance is highly dependent on location. To give HOAs their due, however, here in water starved Northern California, their goal is generally to encourage homeowners to reduce lawn and resist planting trees and shrubs that negatively impact their neighbors – they just don’t always go about it in the right way.

  15. No Susan, most of us in Saratoga are stewards of a singular address yet many have secret gardens and pastures and dream-like places in the country where our fantasies are scripted and sometimes fulfilled. Without obligation, these diverse places continue to provide both therapeutic and artful pleasures and surprise us with every new season – unlike the consistency of a well-maintained garden with its neighborhood decorum.

    The panoramic view along a lake permits us never to see the weeds in the foreground for the mountains in the backdrop. It is both a matter of scale and perspective that allows us to enjoy these experiences. So it is with gardening and those pleasures of immediate gratification (that often escapes us in our daily lives) that let us relish the fruits of our labor.

    On second thought, a painted yellow Montauk beach cottage surrounded by sand with only beach grass and a clothes line with its pins and towels blowing in the wind enjoyed from inside a white painted screened in porch with weathered moss green painted floors surrounded by comfortable heirloom discards would complete this dream-world fantasy. I almost forgot the old refrigerator filled with cold beer and waiting for company and the potted Montauk daises that would satisfy my gardening requirements.

  16. New to this blog. But I must disagree w/ El’s post above citing Lowenfels. While he may be right about too much leafmold in gardens, I’ve learned we DO want fungal hyphae in our gardens. Especially if you’re avoiding chemical fertilizers, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal are almost essential to the majority of plant species. In fact, it’s easier to list the garden plants that DON’T utilize mycorrhizae (e.g. crucifers) than those that do. Mycorrhizae are particularly vital in helping plants absorb phosphorous from the soil. Perhaps even more important, they are the sole producers of “glomalin”, a protein that gives structure and tilth to the soil, and an even greater storer of soil carbon than humic acid. Google all this and see for yourselves. I’ll take fungi any day over bacteria. “Bacteria in the compost heap; fungi in the garden!!!”

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