9th November 2022. By Tig Mays Raking is seen by many as a chore. I see it as fusion of physical activity with tiny, engaging thoughts. What people don't understand about many practical activities is that they require great skill. In the kitchen or garden, you are using and controlling a tool, in the same way that an artist is when wielding a brush or pencil. You only need to watch a good sweeper at work, a skilled chef slicing an onion or a piano tuner playing a scale to see that physical skill is hard-won and requires practice.
We like to think of the skill of a gardener as their understanding of plants, their knowledge of what grows where, how to propagate, when to do this and when to do that. The reality is more nuanced, because it's also about how this knowledge is transmitted into physical action.
Using a rake is not as brutish and basic as you might imagine. The variation of pressure, the direction in which you want to move things, the filtering effect of shifting some objects but not others, the catching of errant leaves and twigs, the decisions about what to take and what to leave, where to build piles and where to shift a pile to...... it is an all-encompassing experience. If you ever have the pleasure of watching a good digger driver at work, you'll see that they have the skills of a dentist or master-jeweller.
A little bit of a back story here. For more than ten years I was the gardener of Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin city centre. This wonderfully serene park, a couple of green acres in Dublin city centre, framed by eighteenth century houses on all sides, is privately owned and used by the local residents. They pay a subscription for its maintenance and for access. The fairness or otherwise of this is not for now. As the gardener, I worked with the seasons, often entirely alone for hours, engaged in what others might imagine as dull or repetitive work. Of all the tasks, 'leaf management' was the most monumental. Stately plane and majestic beech were the main producers of leaves, ably assisted by a mixed crew of Laburnum, horse chestnut, lime, cherry, privet and Magnolia. Evergreen oak - one of which is so big that it's its own universe - sheds leaves more sproradically.
The leaves would come down as fast as I could rake them up. Having removed layers of slimy moss produced by years of weedkilling, and spread over twenty tons of gravel on all the paths, I was immensely proud of the paths and wanted to keep them tidy. I had a wonderful little cart which had been found on Pearse Street. It might have been something a railway porter had used back in the 1950s. Somehow or other I now had it. I built raised sides on it, and it became a work wagon that followed me around the park.
My great interest was that everythig that had gown in the park should stay in the park. This little green island had to support iteslf, so I created three huge wooden bays for storing leaves and grass clippings. Each bay could store one year's worth of these, so by the time three years had gone by, the first bay had rotted down into beautiful compost. I would fork over each pile once in a while, mixing the grass clippings into the leaves: grass clippings on their own get slimy, and residents complained about the smell of silage. The resulting compost was then used around the park as a mulch.
During these years I developed my love of raking. I raked so much that I had to replace my rake a couple of times per season. I had leathery skin between my thumb and first finger and hard patches in the palms of my hand. I could rake on my left or on my right, forwards and backwards, could flick over banks and into barrows. I could whip up a pile of leaves and shift it like a wave, an always-in-motion whirlwind of leaves. My mind was racing with the constant desire to leave the gravel perfect and smooth, to avoid gravel getting removed along with the leaves and to get the leaves into the little piles that I would then later collect.
Much older now, a couple of decades after my Fitzwilliam Square years, I don't have a garden big enough to supply me with the leaves I want to rake. I rake my own suburban garden and keep my leaves. I make piles in a couple of out-of-the-way corners, and I create layers of them under trees, on grass, where I want to phase out the grass and create space for bulbs and woodland plants. I started to rake leaves on the road outside our garden, and found myslef working all the way along the road. Grateful neighbours thanked me, and I had to explain that I was doing it for myself, because I was enjoying myself and couln't stop. One offered a leaf blower, told me it was the 'most powerful blower on the market', and I had to explain that I was happy doing what I was doing.
When it comes to leaf blowers, I know they are great, and they are fun to use too. The down-side to blowers is that the majority of them are noisy, often smelly, fuelled by petrol. They get the job done, but the process of using them destroys the magic. Gardening should be quiet. That is what it can offer us: the activities it provides are in fact gifts. Machines like blowers reduce the peaceful arts into jobs that need to be done. If you enjoy cooking, it is not a chore, it is a pleasure. If you like to knit, it is the act of doing it, as well as the final outcome, that you enjoy. If you love your garden you should love gardening: nothing is work.
Finally, leaves are a good thing that we should actively want to keep. Find somewhere to store them: in a corner behind a tree, under a hedge, in a (degradeable) bag or in a dedicated leaf pile (bamboo and chicken wire makes the perfect leaf-pen). I have found that mixing in a portion of grass clippings, and forking it over once in a while, produces excellent compost. You should regard leaves, or composted leaves, as the equivalent as fibre in your diet. It is natural for trees to live amongst their rotten leaves. They provide organic matter in the soil, they are the diet of earthworms and bacteria, they prevent drought, improve soil structure.... leave the leaves.
Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, 2006 (before the wooden summerhouse was burned down).
3 bays for composting leaves and grass over multiple years
Composting leaves on site in Fitzwilliam Squrae, Dublin.