A baby who loves leaves -- 10-14-15

This photo was taken at the federal forest near the presidential retreat at Camp David, where the leaves were just beginning to turn.


One of the things my 18-month-old granddaughter and I enjoy doing is plucking leaves off the maple tree in our side yard. She usually takes two big ones, then waves them like flags as I carry her around the rest of the property. When the grass is dry, I let her walk, where she picks up other leaves, one at a time, then hands them to me to carry. On a recent walk, a sudden gust pushed every leaf on the lawn forward about a foot, like a fleet of dancing kites. She watched, waiting for them to move again, reminding me why she also cheers up when we go outside: There’s just too much going on to be sad or whiny.

To see things through the eyes of a child is her great gift to me and it makes me think about why certain things happen. I know why leaves change color — they lose their chlorophyll and other colors remain. A good explanation of this process can be found at the National Aboretum’s Web site (http://www.usna.usda.gov/PhotoGallery/FallFoliage/ScienceFallColor.html.)

But most of the time leaves fall before they become brown and dry. I wondered why. I found the answer in a National Wildlife Federation bulletin, which says that shorter days trigger growth in the “abscission cells” at the point where leaves are attached to twigs or branches. Choked off by the cells from their source of chlorophyll and water, leaves soon get the message that it’s time to go. They fall and begin to rot, enriching the soil, especially in forests or woodlands.

One of the great autumn experiences available in Washington County is driving through the falling leaves at Catoctin Mountain State Park near the presidential retreat at Camp David. The leaves still on the trees provide a yellow-orange glow to everything below and the leaves that fall resemble large colored snowflakes. Before you think about raking them up in your yard, consider everything that happens to make this colorful show possible.

Most evergreen foliage doesn’t fall in winter because their needles have a waxy coating that holds water. They are not impervious to wind, however. Too many gusts can strip away that moisture, leaving the foliage winter-burned. If you’d like to learn more about winter burn and how to prevent it, please go to the June 2, 2014 column in our archives.

That said, evergreens do lose some foliage every year. According to University of Wisconsin Extension, evergreen drop a percentage of needles every year, with white pine needle loss being the most dramatic. Other evergreens, such as arborvitae, have a certain percentage that turn brown before they fall, but the extension bulletin says they stay on the tree much longer than other evergreens.

(Note: Knowing all of this doesn’t make clean-up any easier, but it does provide something to think about as I rake.)


All at once, it seems, the canopy of leaves in our back yard has fallen, along with enough black walnuts to make walking difficult. Walnut trees seldom lose big branches because they are among the last trees to leaf out, missing the spring storms. They’re also among the  first to lose them, once again leaving them bare for fall rains and gusts. 

Someone in the newspaper classifieds recently offered walnuts for free to anyone who would come and pick them up. Good luck. Years ago my wife and I took a pickup truckload of them to a place that advertised that it would pay by weight. They did, but after they’d used a machine to take off the outer husks. Our truckload of walnuts yielded a whole $8. We’ll leave the walnuts to the squirrels now, although they often take the whole winter to get them all up.

If you want more on black walnuts and how to harvest them, go to our column for Oct. 14, 2013 or ask the University of Maryland Extension office for a copy of their black walnut bulletin, HG #120.


In one rear corner of our lot, there’s a wooded area, about 1/8th of an acre. Our dog loves to explore this plot, so I’ve cut a small path through it, so that we can get to the five or six groundhog holes that have been dug there. One groundhog was stupid enough to poke its head outside the hole, leading the dog to lunge at it, then frantically dig to enlarge the hole. I have yet to see one outside this patch all summer, whereas once it was common for us to return home and find them feeding on the grass. By the time out car doors slammed, they were back in their holes. Either they’re being very careful or have relocated, perhaps because a fox chased them out.


Near the Robinwood end of Md. 62, I recently saw a dark red fox streak across the road, then run through the horse pasture, all in broad daylight. I began to wonder where such foxes usually are during the day, so I turned to the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management, a partnership of several universities, including Cornell and Clemson. The site says that red foxes either dig their own dens or “borrow” dens dug by groundhogs. They are not necessarily rabid if you see them during the day, but it is best not to approach what is really a wild animal.


(Did you enjoy this column? Please send suggestions and/or constructive criticism to bobmaginnis@myactv.net.)





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