Organic Gardening: This autumn, try using leaves where they fall
“You must like raking leaves!” my neighbor said to me last year when I planted some trees in my front yard. And it’s actually kind of true. Granted, I might be weird. But for those looking to build good soil, fallen leaves can be an important part of improving your lawn, garden beds and vegetable garden. They’re also fodder for making quality compost that has a number of benefits including adding fertility to almost any aspect of the home landscape.
Of course, it helps to have a game-plan for when the leaves drop. It always seems that they want to fall all at once after a big rainstorm in November. When this happens it’s perhaps best to wait for a dry day and then mulch as many into your lawn with the mower as possible. Lawns can absorb a prodigious amount of chipped leaves and by spring they will be well on their way to breaking down, feeding the soil, helping to hold water and creating an ecosystem that favors grass over weedier plants.
Next, pile up leaves from garden beds and any that couldn’t get mulched into the lawn. Go over them with a mower a few times and then rake or blow them back into the garden beds. When it comes to moving leaves around, the new generation of large, plastic leaf-rakes are great. A good rake and decent-size tarp should be enough to handle most yards without resorting to a noisy leaf-blower. Using the mower to chip them will help keep the leaves from blowing away and accelerate the process of decomposition into the soil. One note of caution, it’s good to keep the pulverized leaf mulch away from trees trunks, especially very young trees and bushes because small animals can burrow there over winter and chew on the bark. After moving the chipped leaves into the garden beds, use your hands to clear a small area of a few inches around tree-trunks, the same way you would with mulch.
Although, leaf litter doesn’t contain much nitrogen, their carbon content is a great soil conditioner that helps with loosening soil, water retention and the overall nutrient holding capacity of your garden. By chipping them and piling them on top of your vegetable beds you build soil and create a mulch for next year if that’s desirable. Some leaves like maples will mostly break down by spring whereas others may take more time. Either way, it’s a good idea to pile as many onto the garden as is reasonable and then remove some in the spring if necessary. For high-wind areas, consider holding the leaves down with burlap and landscape staples.
Any remaining leaves from the yard cleanup (or leaf bags stolen from the curbs of your profligate neighbors!) can be stockpiled for compost. In Michigan, carbon-rich fall leaves form the basis of many quality compost piles. By keeping them on hand you can gradually add this brown material to each addition of green yard-waste or nitrogen rich kitchen-waste. If you want to build a pile all at once for possible application the following fall, consider layering your preferably chipped-leaves with a nitrogen source like manure. A large pile may still go cold in the depths of winter, but will heat up again come springtime, especially if you turn it when the weather changes.
In sum, for the organic gardener, there is little reason to let a single fallen leaf exit your property when they can do so much good. If you must dispose of some, consider gifting them to a neighbor who can use the organic matter in her landscape. For bagging, those leaf scoops that look like giant bear claws can be pretty handy. But again, why give them away when it’s often just as easy to use them where they fall and will help with the long-term health of your landscape besides.
Brian Allnutt is a freelance writer and organic gardener in Metro Detroit. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.