Central New York in autumn is my second favorite season, with summer being my favorite of course. There is so much to like about autumn, pumpkins, apples, chrysanthemums, corn stalks, and those brilliantly colored leaves! Speaking of those brilliant leaves, I’d like to talk a little about them.
I remember when I was young I used to spend hours with my dad raking leaves. The process was simple, rake the leaves into a big pile, throw them on a tarp, and pile them in a huge pile in what we called “the back”. Back then I never realized that that big pile broke down, and dad used the organic material that was left in all of the flower and vegetable gardens. I never realized that those annoying leaves played an integral role in dad’s fantastic two acre landscape.
So…now that I own my own home, I’m actually quite excited to put the leaves from four enormous willow trees to work in my landscape. However, since dad taught me the power of leaves I’ve actually found easier, faster, and more ways to use this valuable organic resource. So I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve learned leaves offer, some of the uses, and a couple different ways to “process” them.
What’s in a leaf?
Leaves are packed with trace minerals that trees draw up from deep in the soil. When added to your garden, leaves feed earthworms and beneficial microbes. They lighten heavy soils and help sandy soils retain moisture. They make attractive mulch in the flower garden. They're a fabulous source of carbon to balance the nitrogen in your compost pile. And they’re a great insulator for tender plants from cold. So as you can see there are many benefits to taking the time collect your leaves.
Putting leaves to work!
So now that we know a little about the value of leaves, let’s talk about putting them to work. There are many, many ways to put leaves to work, but since I can’t write forever I’ll talk about a few things I do with my own fallen leaves.
- Mulch your lawn: This works well with relatively light leaf fall. For me this can usually be done after the first hard frost when the leaves just start to fall. When mulching your lawn the amount of leaves is quite important, as to many mulched leaves left can suffocate your lawn. A mulching mower works best here, but a regular mower works as well. If you use a regular mower, you’ll probably want to spread the “line” of mowed leaves around. These mulched leaves left on the lawn overtime add valuable nutrients.
- Mulching your gardens & flower beds: Leaves can be used as mulch in your vegetable gardens, and your flower beds. The leaves should really be shredded if they are to be used in this manner, and there are a couple reasons for this. First, if left whole and introduced to you gardens they will simply smother everything they are put on. Second, if they are shredded they will decompose much faster to add the nutrients your soil needs, and they actually are very attractive when done right.
I’ve found the ideal way to shred the leaves is to rake them into rows and mulch them with a mulching lawn mower preferably with a bagging option to save the raking. However, you can do the same thing with a regular lawnmower, and rake the shredded leaves. You can also purchase a shredder, but I always feel it’s an added expense that’s not necessary.
Adding the leaves to your beds is simple, just lay them down and spread the around. I like to mix them into the soil as well, as I feel this also helps them break down. The mulch acts as great compost/fertilizer, and it also protects tender plants from the cold.
- Composting: Leaves are great “brown” organic material to add to your compost. The carbon in leaves balances all of the nitrogen found in “green” organic material. Again, shredded leaves will decompose much quicker however in this case it’s fine to just add them whole. The easiest way to compost leaves is to create a wire mesh container with chicken wire or the like and simply keep adding leaves.
Over time the leaves will decompose and create “leaf mold”. Leaf mold can be used as a substitute for peat, and it makes a great organic potting soil when mixed with equal parts of soil and perlite. Leaf mold can also be mixed into sticky, clay like soils to loosen them up. As I explained above decomposed leaves also make fantastic organic mulch, but remember to add a bit of “green” materials to balance the carbon. And finally for me the best is the smell! Leaf mold has a very woody, walking through the forest smell that I just love, and when added to the garden you get to enjoy all season!
Like I said, these are just a few ways to use this fantastic organic material. They are bountiful, and best of all FREE! You can use your own, and I’m sure your neighbors would let you have theirs. You can even ask your local landscapers and municipalities for them. In any case, put those annoying fall leaves to work and watch your lawns and gardens grow!!!
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