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a year in a small urban garden (3): leaf fall

Posted Nov 01 2010 12:00am

From Ma Yogini’s Garden this month :)

Now is the time of falling leaves – and for all gardeners the time of sweeping them up and putting them for compost.

This can be tedious work for as one leaf is swept another falls but if they can be kept separate they make the most wonderful light compost ideal for lightening heavy soil.

Otherwise they contribute  to the general compost bin.

This garden is too small to contain anything that could pretend to be a tree but just outside the front door stands one of the most splendid and popular of urban trees – the London Plane (platanus x hispanica) and we get our fair share of its leaves.

The tree is so named because of its dominance in the city but there is no evidence that it is native to London nor indeed to this country.

It is thought to be a hybrid but its origins are so clouded in uncertainty that it is convenient to regard it as of ‘unknown origin’.  However it was known in Spain and Southern France in the early 17th century, was probably first planted in England about 1680 and became dominant in parks and squares in London where it flourished and spread to towns and cities across the country.  It took well to urban life being a tough and resilient tree able to withstand pollution and to grow in compacted or paved over soil and its leathery leaves are soon washed clean by the next shower of rain.

The mottled bark is lovely especially where large flakes peel off revealing pastel coloured patches of pale green or yellow. It used to be valued for its finely textured timber known as ‘lace wood veneer’.  This, sadly, is rarely if ever, used nowadays.

Lovely and widespread the London Plane may be, but councils across the country are seriously considering felling them, especially where they line pavements or footpaths, because fallen leaves are a hazard to pedestrians (and we live in a litiginous age) and their roots can raise paving stones and macadam rendering pavements uneven.

More seriously, however, is the damage they can cause to property.  In this city at the moment battle lines are being drawn up between householder, tree lovers and the council over plans to fell some Planes which are supposed to be causing damage to nearby property.

This strikes a chord with the urban gardener since in 1983  (before we came to live here)  a similar case arose when cracks in the walls of the  house were found to have been caused by this very tree sucking water from the ground and causing movement in the foundations of the house. Such a tree, it was stated, could draw up water from a considerable depth- possibly one and a half times its own height – and after some dry summers it had rendered the ground so dry as to be unstable and the house had to be underpinned.   The tree was at that time 16 years old and was growing on ‘council owned ground’ i.e. the street so the council was judged to be responsible for the damage and ordered to pay £5,000 to the owners to cover the cost of underpinning.

The trees are now more carefully managed and,  after a heavy initial pruning, are pruned on a regular basis and live on to enhance the street, though hopefully not to damage any more houses.

Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons
Gathering Leaves Robert Frost


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