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Gather leftover leaves for garden soil improvement this spring

The Detroit News

The coronavirus lockdown is causing a lot of people to think about planting a garden this year.

If this is your first year of gardening, you should begin preparing your garden space early, well before you plant seeds. For example, we’re still gathering organic materials such as tree leaves to add to our garden beds.

Experienced gardeners know that tree leaves are among the most valuable materials that can be added to a garden. We collected many, many bags of leaves last fall but there is always room for more in the garden.

It’s obvious that fall is the best time of year to collect fallen tree leaves but there are still leaves that can be found in the spring. Since not everyone rakes their yards in the fall, there were plenty of leaves blowing around last fall that were dropped along fences, hedges and other places. Those can be taken up now for use in the garden.

Although there are not as many leaves now as last fall, there are still plenty to gather this spring.

 When working with leaves in the garden, I like to think of it as mimicking a forest floor. Some I’ll incorporate directly into the soil, the rest I place on top as a mulch to help reduce weeds and maintain even soil moisture.

Deep applications of deciduous leaves have a tendency to form flat layers as they settle. These layers eventually become impervious to water and air causing rainwater to run off and reduces efficient air exchange.

Chopped leaves are the absolute best for the garden. We gather our leaves using our electric Toro “Ultra” leaf blower/vacuum that sucks up the leaves then chops them into just the right size. The chopped leaves are immediately collected into a cloth bag slung across your shoulder. It’s lightweight, quiet ( I hate the sound of gas powered leaf blowers) and easy to use. Running a lawn mower over a pile of leaves works OK, too, but with larger leaves such as oak or maple, you have to go over them a couple of times to get adequate mincing.

Our Toro leaf vac makes it much easier to collect and add perfectly shredded leaves to the garden.

Leaves all by themselves provide only a small percentage per dry weight of the three macronutrients; nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK). What makes them so valuable is their capacity to provide food and fuel to soil microorganisms that build humus in the soil. A relatively inferior soil can be turned into a rich, loamy garden soil in a season or two with the addition of chopped leaves.

Leaves also contain all of the micronutrients plants require for growth. Tree roots bring up those nutrients from deep in the subsoil and use them to grow leaves, which in turn release the micronutrients into the soil when they drop and decompose. Most bagged fertilizers do not provide micronutrients.

Vegetable plants absorb and use these important micronutrients to grow and thrive. Once we eat our homegrown vegetables, those molecules of micronutrients are used by our bodies. It’s one reason why homegrown vegetables are so much better than factory-farmed vegetables. 

Instead of grumbling about your neighbors who didn’t rake their leaves last fall, you can thank them for helping improve your garden soil this spring.