Falling Leaves Don’t Only Inspire: The Art of Composting

It took only a day or two of rain and some strong winds to strip the glory off the maple tree that inspired my Falling Leaves quilt. In the last few days, instead of shining with magnificent fall colors, my garden was filled with sad-looking naked branches, and huge piles of fallen, muddy leaves:

Fallen leaves in my yard

Granted, I must admit that some were still quite beautiful, even on the ground:

Fallen leaves in my garden

To me, however, even in their deplorable state, falling leaves are a pure treasure. And not only for their former (or lingering) beauty. I already confessed to being a little obsessed with recycling. Whenever possible, I religiously recycle paper, plastic and metal, and of course–FABRIC. I also already mentioned my love of gardening. So it is only natural that, whenever possible, I try to recycle in the yard, as well.

One of the first things I did once I got my own garden, was to take a composting workshop. This might seem somewhat unnecessary to all you seasoned gardeners. At the time, however, I really didn’t know much about decomposition. A workshop seemed appropriate. It lasted about two hours, and could be summed into one sentence: fill a bin with 50% green cuttings and 50% dry material, mix, wet, and wait.

Since then, I’ve been trying to return everything that comes from the garden back into the garden. In the city’s garden-waste bins I deposit only diseased plants, parts that are too fibrous, or especially-thick branches. Everything else goes into my compost bin:

My compost bin

In fact, there are many weeks in which I don’t even bother to take the city garden bins to the curb. They are often completely empty.

Composting everything is a lot of work, and requires some advance planning. For things to compost at a reasonable time (for me, that means up to a year), every plant needs to be chopped into smaller pieces. In spring and summer this translates into hours and hours of standing above the compost bin and chopping green cuttings. In the fall, the main season for collecting the “brown” component that composting requires, it means hours of collecting leaves. After I collect the leaves, I store them away in paper bags, and add them to the bin slowly over the remaining months of the year.

It’s actually really good for the soil to just let falling leaves decompose where they fall. There are parts of my garden where I do just that–let nature take care of itself. I collect only leaves that fall on paths, the lawn or on other plants. Depending on the location, I either rake or vacuum them. The vacuum automatically chops the leaves into smaller bits, which are easier to store and which decompose faster.

Last weekend was my last crafts fair for the year. The weeks leading to the fair were hectic, leaving me with little time for anything else. Once the fair was over, however, I took a break from sewing. This week I tried to catch up on all the neglected tasks. The garden was on the top of my list.

I still haven’t used up all the leaves I stored last year. This year, therefore, I decided  to  use everything I collect as ground cover. A thick layer of ground cover (preferably six inches thick) helps protect roots from frost, and in summer helps keep the moisture in. So this week I raked and vacuumed wherever needed, and then deposited piles of chopped leaves all over the yard:

A pile of shredded fallen leaves in my garden

In the coming days I will spread these piles more evenly, covering as much ground as possible with this highly-beneficial dry material.

The hours (and days!) it takes to collect leaves and other organic matter, chop , spread, or compost everything aren’t always pleasant. However, all that work pays off in the long run. My modest compost bin reliably produces rich, high-quality and entirely organic (!!) compost. My compost is swarming with life: earthworms, Armadillidiidae (also known as Roly Polies), earwigs and all kinds of other creatures call it a home. Once I even found baby salamanders in the mix! Every year I spread this compost around fruit trees and on flower beds. It enriches the native California clay soil, feeds the earthworms–who in turn dig and loosen the soil, bringing air to roots–and in general makes my plants happy.

The reward comes in spring and summer, with amazing flowers and tasty fruits . And it all begins with these leaves, that shine with golden light in the fall and then turn into black gold by summer!

Falling Leaves Art Quilt

Over the last few weeks I’ve spent every free moment in my sewing room, laboring over my Renaissance Totes. I really wanted to get them finished in time for the German Holiday Market (tomorrow!), and did my utmost to make that happen. However, I couldn’t help but start another project on the side. I never thought I’ll manage to complete that, as well, but miraculously I did!

ANY Texture Falling Leaves art quilt

This all started when, around Thanksgiving, my workroom started to feel like a golden cathedral. The culprit was our maple tree, which remained persistently green until a day or two before Turkey Day, whence upon it metamorphosed seemingly overnight to its most glamorous state.

Being right outside my studio’s window, the tree overwhelmed the room, filling its windows and door with breath-taking reds and yellows, and shining golden light onto everything. My quiet sewing moments thus turned into a truly spiritual, almost meditative experience. In the presence of this awe-inspiring natural beauty I felt like the most lucky person on earth.

The maple tree outside my studio window

My maple tree in full glory

Beautiful fall leaves

Despite being engrossed with my new tote series, I felt compelled to do something with those leaves. And so, encouraged by my “Give a Hand” quilt, I started working on a smaller, “Falling Leaves” wall hanging. Since it required many relatively-short steps, I was able to work on it on the days the kids were on vacation, and in the short intervals in-between cooking and house chores. I also pulled a few late nights this past week, with the crafts fair looming near…

First, I started by selecting an array of fall-colored fabrics, onto which backs I ironed applique double-sided interfacing. I then drew leaves on the paper side, including some maple leaves but also interesting-looking leaves from other kinds of trees:

Getting ready to cut a leaf for applique

Then I cut them all out:

Cut red maple leaf

I deliberately chose different-textured fabrics, as that is the most exciting aspect, for me, of working with upholstery fabrics versus the more traditional quilting cottons. By incorporating this golden silk, for example, I think I managed to convey some of the radiant light that illuminates from real fall leaves:

Cut maple leaf on gold fabric

I arranged the composition, and ironed the leaves onto the background, fusing the pieces together:

Fusing fall leaves onto quilt

Now the piece was ready for the labor-intensive hand-stitching stage. I started with appliqueing around the leaves. When I worked on my Hand Quilt I used only a blanket stitch. This time I decided to use several kinds of stitches, to make the work a bit more interesting. I still used blanket stitch on some of the leaves:

Appliqueing fall leaves onto quilt

But I also incorporated other stitches, such as this chain stitch:

Appliqueing fall leaves onto quilt

You will notice that I learned a lesson from my previous experience, and used thimbles right from the start on this one! Upholstery fabrics are really hard to stitch through… Despite my precautions, however, I still got a blister on my thumb…

When all the leaves were appliqued to the background, I went on to embroider their veins:

Appliqueing fall leaves onto quilt

Then, as in any quilt, I sandwiched the three layers together: top, batting and back.

Falling Leaves art quilt sandwiched for quilting

And went on to quilt them all together, using big, noticeable stitches, Japanese boro style:

Quilting my Falling Leaves art quilt

I played with the colors of the thread as well as with the direction of the stitches to give the piece added interest. Here is a detail:

Falling Leaves art quilt details

And the whole piece quilted:

Finished Falling Leaves art quilt

The big stitches gave the background a crinkly look that I really like. It somehow reminds me of the bark of a tree, or of a forest floor.