Thursday, January 10, 2013
Gather Leaves While Ye May
Leaves are beginning to turn, and soon they will fall. Let them lie where they can do what they are supposed to do: feed the soil. Clean them up off the places where they cause problems: roofs; gutters; pavements; paths; and lawns. Spread them where they can do good, on soil. As a last resort, send them to the composter.
Leaves will stop most small seeds from sprouting by keeping the sun off them; a couple inches of leaves will smother most small weeds as well. Leaves will also suppress small garden plants. You won’t get many pansy volunteers among oak leaves, and too many leaves can even smother the plants.
To build good garden soil cheaply, pile your leaves a foot deep, well-watered and stomped down, and cover them with an inch or so of compost; this is the equivalent of 6” of good compost; both will grow big vegetables. Softer leaves are better for this; sycamore in particular will not readily break down when piled, even under compost, unless they are first chopped up in a shredder or leaf vacuum. Tough leaves like sycamore and magnolia are brittle and bust up into little bits going through the machine.
In my work, I use leaves as base mulch only if they are on site and readily available; otherwise I use straight compost, from 2” for flowers and shrubs to 6” thick for vegetables, and cover it with light top mulch.
Compost, whether piled thick or spread thin on leaves, will dry quickly in the sun and must be covered with a light mulch of bark, wood chunks, or evergreen needles, just enough to hide it from the sun. Dark, half-composted wood mulch has been my favorite for a while, but only one composter makes it and the supply is not dependable. Chipped tree trimmings can be acquired through tree-trimming outfits, who keep a list of nearby places to dump them. Shredded and nugget bark is readily available from landscape supply places; avoid fine or un-sifted bark, as excessive bark dust kills soil organisms with its natural preservatives. Pine needles are free and renew their supply every year; their downside is a tendency to poke fingers and slide off beds, and they are difficult to spread neatly among plants.
Paths may need mulch of their own; wood chips, shredded and nugget bark, or pine needles work well. Wood chips are most effective at suppressing weeds; nugget bark lasts longest; shredded bark clings best to slopes. Pine needles are free and renew themselves.
Leaves are messy, and have a tendency to spread and blow. Edging your beds with rocks can contain the leaves and give a finished, permanent look to your beds. Choose rocks at least the size of a football; anything smaller is too delicate to stay in place or hold anything. They should have flat bottoms and be laid end-to-end, sloping back, for stability.
Published at AssociatedContent.com under The Natural Gardener #6.