I think we all have a “love-hate” relationship with autumn leaves. They give us an endless panorama of color each fall. They also cover our lawns and gardens in layers of red and gold that we have to rake and dispose of. I’m going to tell you how to convert those leaves into “gardener's gold” to enrich your soil and insulate many of your plants from winter's cold.
When you stop to think about it, leaves provide us with many months of benefits each year: from the light green flush of early spring, to deep green shade on hot summer days. As autumn approaches they turn in a show of crimson and gold. They provide shelter for our song birds as well as many other animals.
Right now, millions of pounds of natural compost are going to waste. In yards and gardens across the country, fallen leaves are treated like trash but the smart gardener gathers up this free treasure and uses it to improve soil quality and plant health.
Compost Leaves, especially those that have been chopped or shredded (you can use a chipper/shredder, a leaf vacuum, or a lawn mower to shred the leaves) are excellent additions to your compost pile. Leaves are a great source of "brown," high-carbon material for the compost. Simply alternate layers of shredded leaves with the regular green materials you'd add to your compost pile (such as vegetable and fruit scraps, weeds, grass clippings, and plants that you pull out in your fall garden clean-up) and let it sit over the winter. Aerate or turn the pile when you think of it, and by planting time next spring, you'll have finished compost.
Soil Amendment Each fall after I remove the plants from my vegetable garden I spread a 2-3 inch layer of shredded leaves over the entire garden I also add a small amount of a balanced fertilizer (this aides in the decomposition) and till them into the soil. They decompose over the winter and when it's time to plant in the spring they have turned in fertile organic material. Leaves worked into a light, sandy soil, will improve water and nutrient holding capacity.
Mulch Shredded leaves make excellent mulch for tender perennials such as hydrangeas and azaleas. Place a six- to eight-inch layer of shredded leaves around the base of the plant to protect the roots. In extremely cold areas make a cage of chicken wire and place around the plant; fill the cage with shredded leaves to protect the buds from freezing.
Leaf Mold You can create leaf mold, an extra rich type of compost, out of leaves and water. Leaf mold retains water well, and is packed with beneficial fungi, as well as calcium and magnesium. However, be warned that leaf mold can take up to three years to make. Simply pile leaves into a large bin, thoroughly wetting down the leaves. Put a tarp or other cover over the bin and let fungi do their thing. the bottom of the leaf pile will have decomposed into black leaf mold within six to twelve months, but the whole pile may take up to three years to break down.
Make Lasagna Compost This is another way of composting the leaves. Also known as sheet composting, lasagna gardening is a simple and effective way to transform a lawn or weed patch into a rich garden bed. Start with cardboard or a few layers of newspaper. Soak this layer, and then pile on layers of "browns" and "greens." Alternate leaves and shredded newspaper (browns) with food scraps and grass clippings (greens).
Extend The Harvest Season If you want to extend the season for winter root vegetables, like rutabagas, carrots, leeks, kale or beets, you may use a heavy layer of shredded leaves to cover them. You may find you can harvest these vegetables all winter with this added protection from leaves.
Bank Those Leaves Here in our area we have to separate the compostable material from our regular trash. I regularly raid the neighbor's trash for their discarded leaves. I place them into black trash bags and place them in a sunny location for the winter. By the time spring arrives the bagged leaves have begun to decompose and I have a fresh supply of mulch for my spring planting.
Diseased Leaves Leaves from trees with leaf diseases such as apple scab, anthracnose, or leaf spot should be removed or destroyed to prevent over-wintering of the disease organisms in the debris and possible re-infection of new leaves next year. Oak leaves decompose more slowly than other types of leaves and it is best to use them for mulch or compost. In fact, their slower rate of decomposition makes them well suited for use as mulch.
One final note Before you spread or shred those leaves rake or blow them into a huge pile and let the kids go crazy. There's no better way to have fun on an autumn days than to bring together a bunch of kids and a huge pile of kids. Believe me you won't have to show them what to do; they will jump in without prompting.
About Paul Rodman
Paul Rodman has been gardening for over 45 years. He is an Advanced Master Gardener, and American Rose Society Consulting Rosarian. He is President Emertius of the Western Wayne County Master Gardener Association in Wayne County, Michigan. He currently serves as the greenhouse chairman of this group. Rodman has amassed over 5500 volunteer hours in the Master Gardener program.
Rodman is the garden columnist for The News Herald newspaper, in Southgate, Michigan. He has also written for the Organic Gardening.com web site.
He is a certified Master Canner and has taught classes on Home Food Preserving for 7 years.
He has lectured on various gardening topics throughout southeastern Michigan.
His favorite pastime is teaching children about gardening. For the past several years he has conducted classes for second grade students teaching them about subjects ranging from vermi-composting to propagation.