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Leaves as mulch

Leave the Leaves

Sep 27, 2017
by Kellen Watson, Daily Acts

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Fall is rolling in with fits and starts, and many of us are feeling a draw to turn inward. Like yarrow ready for deadheading, I’m feeling ready for rejuvenation, and many of you probably are too. With visions of garden grown butternut pies and freshly harvested tulsi tea, we all want a little more comfort and a little less to do.

Good news…I’m here to take one more thing off the task list for you. This year, you can let go of raking fall leaves.

Mama Nature is pretty good at taking care of herself, and thus has figured out an ingenious way to self-fertilize and mulch…falling leaves. Dropping leaves each fall is nature’s way of recycling the carbon and nutrients that have been sucked up throughout the growing season. It’s also her way of covering the soil to prevent erosion in the wet season.

To take a page from her book, just leave your leaves, especially if it’s only a light layer or if they are falling on your mulched garden beds. They’ll provide habitat, protect your plants from frost, and decompose into garden gold. I’ve found salamanders curled up between the leaf layers mid-winter many times, so let their cuteness inspire your laziness on this front.

If you have leaves falling in places that you really don’t want them, like your driveway or paved paths, consider raking them, shredding them, and using them as mulch. Or if your leaves are falling really thick and you have delicate or rot-prone plants underneath, you may want to shred them and spread them. To shred them, you can rake leaves into a pile and use a lawn mower (ideally electric!) to mow over the piles a few times. If leaves are on your lawn, you don’t even have to rake them first. You can just mow and they’ll fertilize your lawn. Otherwise, adding them to your compost pile is an easy way to consolidate them without having to necessarily shred them. Over time, you’ll see huge benefits in your garden. Here are a few tips:

Places to use fallen leaves:

• Insulate Tender Plants: A 6-inch blanket of leaves protects tender plants from winter wind and cold. Cover cold-hardy vegetables—such as carrots, kale, leeks and beets—and you’ll be able to harvest them all winter.

• Boost Your Compost Pile: Carbon-rich leaves balance high-nitrogen compost ingredients such as fresh grass clippings.

• Improve Your Soil: Mix shredded leaves right into your garden. Next spring, your soil will be teeming with earthworms and other beneficial organisms.

• Make “Leaf Mold”: Simply rake the leaves into a big pile. If you shred them, they will decompose faster, but you can still make leaf mold without shredding. After one to three years, fungus will have broken the leaves down to a special compost that smells like a walk through the woods. Leaf mold is high in calcium and magnesium and retains three to five times its weight in water—rivaling peat moss.

Think Before You Shred

Be careful with some kinds of leaves. Walnut, eucalyptus and bay laurel leaves contain substances that inhibit plant growth. It’s best to compost these leaves before using them in your garden

Chop or shred leaves before using them as mulch if they are falling thick. Whole leaves can form a mat that water and air can’t easily penetrate.

If you add shredded leaves right to the soil, add some nitrogen-rich organic fertilizers or compost to help the leaves decompose and to ensure that soil microbes don’t lock up all of the available nitrogen while decomposing.

This may be a refresher for many of you, but I hope it relieves you to know that there could be fewer leaf blowers this season. Thanks to Wendy Krupnick for the inspiration for this month’s article. Until next month, enjoy the transition and treat yourself to one less thing to do.

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