Fall is one of my favorite seasons of the year. I love the fall foliage with its different colors of red, yellow, and orange. As beautiful as the colorful foliage seems, many people dread fall because they have to rake up all those leaves. On top of the hard work, they have to pay someone to haul them away. But what happens if I told you that those leaves are one of the most valuable assets in your garden? They are made by Mother Nature, herself. On top of this, they are plentiful and free.
Just think. No only do you no longer need to spend money having your leaves hauled away; you also don’t need to continue spending money on hardwood mulches or compost every year. Leaves help to make excellent compost and mulch. This is how brown turns into green.
In addition, “Yard wastes make up about 20 percent of the solid waste that ends up in our landfills. It includes leaves, brush, grass clippings and other organic materials. Composting is one way to reduce waste accumulation,” according to the Montana State University Extension in an article reprinted May, 2003. So, how do you utilize the leaves to create mulch or compost?
Just Mow Them
Let’s say you only want to get rid of your leaves and are not interested in composting or mulch. You could simply mow your leaves. You should never leave whole leaves on grass during the winter. The leaves will deprive your grass of oxygen and encourage pest. Take your lawn mover, set the blade to a height of 3”, and run over them until they are in small pieces. It is recommended that you start mowing when some grass is still peeking through the leaves. Otherwise, you will have to suck up or spread out some of the leaves so that there is not more than 1” of mulch on the ground. They will naturally decompose and add to your soil.
If you wish to purchase an electric cordless mulching lawn mower, David Beaulieu, who write a column about landscaping at About.com, wrote an interesting article in which he recommended the Black & Decker electric mower for lawns that are flat and less than 1/3 of an acre.
Use the as Compost
In order to compost, you will need a certain amount of “brown” to make compost. The first year I started composting, I could not understand why my compost looked like sludge. I was not putting in enough brown. Where was I supposed to get brown in the summer? Leaves were nowhere to be found. Plus, I did not want to use paper. Whenever I used straw, it would take forever to decompose. (Perhaps it would have helped if had I cut it up.)
According to the Cornell Cooperative Extension, “brown layers should be two to three times as thick as green layers. Green layers should be no more than 1 or 2 inches thick.”1 Green layers are comprised of grass clippings, coffee grounds, vegetable and fruit waste. Brown layers are made up of leaves, straw, or paper. If you are interested to learn more about composting, the Extension has a terrific article on the lasagna method.
At the end of the summer, I started collecting the fall leaves in plastic garage bags for lack of a better collection system for the following spring. I stored them in the garage. This summer, I was prepared to make compost and realized by the end of the season, I still did not collect enough leaves.
This year, I collected double the amount of leaves for next year, but in my hurray, I forgot to shred them. Next spring, I will need to use a leaf shredder such as the Flowtron LE 900 recommended in Mother Earth News’ 2004 article, “Learn to Love Your Leaves,” or a mulching lawn mower. The chopped leaves decomposed quicker than whole leaves in a composter.
Use as mulch for Garden Beds
Leaves are great mulch. Every year, I pay for hardwood mulch for my beds to help retain water, and so I don’t have to weed as much. About a month after I put down the hardwood mulch, a fungus starts growing in certain places. It looks like throw-up. Sorry to be so descriptive, but there just is not better words to describe what it looks like. Needless to say, it is hideous looking.
As I mentioned above, I store my leaves in garage bags that I reuse each year. This is not the best option. Gardener Supply has a single wire compost bin or three-bin system that you could use to store the leaves. I found the wire cage to be a little bit flimsy and if you live in a high wind area, you will need to purchase their earth staples. Overall, it is not a bad solution.
If you would like to make your own mulch bin, see the article from the Montana State University Extension. Although the article deals with yard compost bins, you can use the same materials to make yard mulch bins. If you find that your leaf mulch starts to resemble dark black soil, this is compost. You do not want to use the decomposed leaves as mulch.
It is recommended that you do not put more than 3 to 4” of leaves in your garden bed. Leaves should decompose about a year before you put them in your garden. Researcher, Abigail Maynard of the Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station, observed that fresh leaves can inhibit the growth of certain crops.
Next time you go outside an eye all those leaves all over your lawn, just think of the gold out there for the taking. Free mulch and free compost. Isn’t Mother Nature wonderful?
“Learn to Love Your Leaves,” Heidi Hunt, Mother Earth New, October/November 2004
“Leave Leaves Alone,” Willi Evan Galloway, Organic Gardening.
1”Lasagna Composting”, Cornell Cooperative,Tomkins County, http://tinyurl.com/2fvcc4