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Put Your Leaves to Work!

Lifelong gardener and author Greg Coppa provides this advice for using fallen leaves to improve the soil in the garden:

From an article in Hort Magazine, October 2, 2018

I have come to look at fallen leaves as a gift from Mother Nature. My neighbors to the north and west smile at their good fortune and my bad luck as September and October winds transport their pretty, lightweight, nutrient-packed foliage into knee-high drifts in my yard—but I think to myself, “Keep ‘em coming!”

Out of necessity I constructed a philosophy and action plan to get me past this annual nightmare. Short of repurposing snow fences and alienating those who lack a knowledge of leaf etiquette, what else could I do? And over time I learned that it’s not just my wishful thinking but a fact that leaves are a garden resource. They’re a kind of slow-release fertilizer that can be used as mulch with just a little processing, or transformed into a great amendment for even the poorest of soils.


Leaves on the Lawn
Before talking about how to use fallen leaves, I should make the case for a continuous leaf cleanup plan, particularly where a heavy concentration of leaves may develop on a lawn. Leaving leaves in place for even short periods of time will weaken a lawn by depriving it of light.

A light leaf layer can be simply mowed, mower mulched or collected with grass clippings and stored for later use. There comes a point, though, when there are too many leaves to simply mow or mower mulch, particularly as temperatures drop and the breakdown of mulched material slows. Then it is time to collect the fallen leaves and store them for use.


Leaves as Mulch
So what do you do with all this recovered organic matter? Well some, like pine needles, can be used as an attractive mulch. Broad leaves that are run through shredding machines can be reduced to a tenth of their original volume. If they’re then mixed with fresh grass clippings to serve as a binder, they can be used as mulch as well. After placing the material around trees and shrubs, water it in and you will have a wind resistant, protective, nourishing and reasonably good-looking soil cover for your beds.


Leaves Build Soil
Collect your leaves, you can also mix in saved grass clippings; they are rich in the nitrogen needed to break down the carbon-heavy leaves. These can be stored in a pile or in perforated (use a garden fork) black garbage bags. If piled, you may cover everything with some soil—this is a future pathway for worms that devour organic matter. Water it all in generously and repeat the process as you continue to collect leaves through the fall. You will find by late spring that the pile is filled with worms and worm castings and that most of the leaves are broken down. You can plant right on top of this fertile ground, use to condition soil in a new bed, or use as a top dressing throughout the growing season.

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