No cost water-harvesting when you stop raking

From Brad Lancaster’s Rain-water Harvesting blog comes the welcome advice that less is more. Raking removes ground cover, encourages water evaporation, dries out soil. The result is poor soil quality, lower aquifers and dry, unhealthy vegetation. Leave the leaves alone!

Fortunately, there is a way to harvest water, even during droughts.  It costs nothing, and requires no expenditure of energy.  Can this be true?  Grab yourself a cool drink, take a seat, and let the litter fall.  Leaf and stem litter, that is.

A handful of mesquite leaf litter, delivered free of charge by the canopy overhead, can help retain water on your landscape. Photo credit: Julia Fonseca

You’ve been spending too much time raking and bagging those leaves, seed pods and twigs.  They could be working for you, if you don’t throw them out.  No, I’m not talking about composting.  Composting is work too! But if you just left the litter where it fell, it would in time form a nice natural mulch that would slow erosion, build up the water-holding ability of the soil, and help make the soil easier to dig, if you do decide to dig a swale someday.  Be a litter harvester!

Plant litter is so important that it is one of the three key measurements that the Natural Resources Conservation Service uses as a measure of watershed condition. Plant cover, litter, and rock all help stem erosion of sloping land.  If it’s not raining, only litter and rock can retard runoff, and shade the soil, AND retain moisture.  (But see my rant against crushed rock landscaping.)

A layer of litter will work for you every time it rains well enough to penetrate the litter layer, making it more difficult for the sun to evaporate moisture from the soil below. So, if you do need to rake up litter, then consider moving it to areas where it can mulch a plant.

Even when it isn’t raining, a layer of leaf litter recruits workers to improve your soil. Unlike rock, leaf and twig litter is readily colonized by tiny organisms, and those attract others and pretty soon you have unpaid laborers tunneling into your soil, creating “macropores” for better, deeper infiltration.  In urban Tucson you can also get thrashers, cactus wrens and towhees tilling the ground and scratching for goodies!

All work together to decompose your litter into smaller pieces, and that helps pump extra carbon into the soil.  Extra carbon in your soils is part of the magic.  Soil carbon boosts the ability of the soil to hold water for later use by plants, resulting in a healthier and more drought-resistant landscape.”


My interest in rain-water harvesting is not theoretical.  Apart from the rising cost of water in the US itself, which means higher bills during a time of recession, water has become a serious crisis in many countries, including India.

The southern state of Karnataka has a critical shortage of water and even in Tamil Nadu, which traditionally has torrential rains from two monsoons, water has become an election issue.

In part, this is because of a massive demand from increasing numbers of corporations, foreign and domestic, that flock to the state and receive preferential access at every level.

In part, it is because of  the government subsidy of agricultural water-use that leads to waste and mis-allocation.

There’s also the government-subsidized real estate boom, which created in India exactly what it created in the US – a huge misdirection of  funds into home-building . That’s led to shortages in building materials like concrete and sand.

It’s also put a big dent in the water table in many areas.

These days, bottled water is a necessity in many urban areas, but it’s expensive and makes for dependence on the water-supplier.

Water self-sufficiency is the answer,  both at the level of the house-hold and of the nation.

2 thoughts on “No cost water-harvesting when you stop raking

  1. This piece of wisdom, though widely acknowledged, is seldom followed.
    Mr Mahindra, who used to be Director General of India’s Central Public Works Department told me this story : Once the horticulture section cleared up the then Prime Minister Nehru’s lawn of leaves : Mr Nehru called up Mr Mahindra and and directed that this must never be repeated.
    That was more than half a century ago.
    Yet this practice of removing fallen leaves continues almost everywhere in Delhi.
    Sometime back the High Court of Delhi had intervened on another aspect of it: The leaves were being collected and burnt. The Court passed an order against burning the leaves : since then I’ve seen fewer piles of leaves in the city. Now the dominant practice is to dump them at spots earmarked in parks in order to make compost out of them.
    The idea of simply ‘leaving the leaves be’ doesn’t seem to have many takers. Partly because they would, it is believed, clog drains. But the real clogging happens because of plastic bags on which local city governments across India appear to have only half-hearted policies…. Possibly, the manufacturers have long arms…
    Anil Nauriya

  2. Anil,

    One issue is vermin and snakes. In India, if you let the leaves accumulate, won’t you get rats and snakes?

    Is there some simple solution to it? I suppose you could adopt a family of mongeese, but that might not be an easy thing.

    Any thoughts? It would help a great number of people – especially elders on fixed income – if there was a low-cost, low-effort solution to the snake issue.

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