Saturday, December 21, 2013

Make Room to Use Your Leaves

      This yard was fine bark mulched; it is now covered with blue star creeper, white thyme; and sweet woodruff; the brown is fresh locust leaves from the tree above.  They cover it through the winter. 

        Properties from tiny yards to large parks have trees for shade and beauty.  They produce leaves that mostly drop in the fall, and flowers, fruit and seeds that drop any time of year, depending on the plant.  These properties also may have lawns, shrub borders, paths, pavements, or even unplanted waste areas.
          Leaves and other tree debris must be removed from lawns, lest they kill the grass, though some can be mulched into the lawn without harming it, with the grass clippings.  They have to be removed from buildings, lest they rot roofs and clog gutters.  They have to be removed from pavements, lest they be a slipping danger, and as a matter of order and cleanliness.  They should be removed from paths, so they don’t rot the mulch, fill the gravel, or get tracked indoors.
          That leaves must be removed from some places does not make them trash.  They are not waste unless they are wasted by being hauled to the composter, because one is wasting their unique ability to stop weeds and feed soil naturally.  Burning them further wastes their potential use as compost mulch that can be used to stop weeds and feed soil, while polluting the air with the acrid scent of burning mulch.  But even hauling them to the composter costs money.

 Even a thin accidental mulch of soft maple leaves stopped a lot of groundsel from sprouting on the edge of this weedy field.

          Leaves have a truly unique ability to stop weeds because the top few layers dry quickly, making a poor place for seeds to germinate.  All other mulches are seed beds by comparison, not drying as fast on top and providing holes and cracks that seeds can settle into and sprout.  

 Fresh wood chips at Dimmick; the county started using them in 2012 on many parking lots.

The second best weed-stopping mulch is wood chips, which also layer and dry out on the surface, though not as quickly.  They are good mulch for paths; they even clean your shoes, and look nice and bright, freshly spread in mid-winter.  They also stay in place better than leaves, and can be used on steep, narrow parking lot dividers and berms.
Leaves should, therefore, be used on beds, shrub borders and unplanted areas to control weeds, which saves the work of laboriously raking and picking leaves out of the shrubbery.  They can be spread anywhere from 2 to 6 inches thick to control weeds and feed the soil, softening it for easy weeding of whatever manages to come up through the leaves.  A foot of leaves will grow huge vegetables while they decompose.
Fine bark, less than a year old, with the leaves "cleaned" out of it.  Note the black bark and soil.

 Many people like the “clean” look of finely ground or shredded bark, but it cannot stay clean for long, with leaves, flowers, fruit, and twigs constantly falling from trees and shrubs.  Few workers have the patience to clean them all out anyways.  In either case, scattered bits of organic debris do not look clean or pretty.  

 Plum leaves blend right into 3/4" nugget bark.
The more coarse the mulch, the more it hides the stuff that falls into it.  Nugget bark and walk-on fir work for this.  Leaves are not only the most coarse mulch, hiding all but the largest debris, but they do a much better job as mulch than anything else at mulch’s three jobs:  stopping weeds; holding water; and feeding soil.
Fine bark mulch has to be renewed regularly as it decomposes, turns black, and evaporates, which takes money to buy bark and labor to spread it.  Leaves renew themselves every fall and during the year as trees add stuff to the mulch, nearly all of which is welcome.  They just need to be moved from places that they don’t belong to the soil where they do, which is a lot less work and expense than cleaning them up and replacing them with bark.
 Lawns are good places for people and dogs to play and to have smooth, green open space to look upon.  They are high maintenance, but their care seems relatively uncomplicated compared to beds full of shrubs and flowers, since most of it can be done with machines, like mowers and blowers, which reduce stoop work.  They also need to be weeded, but using a mulching mower can prevent small-seeded weeds, like crabgrass, dandelion, and annual rye, from sprouting.
Still, if you have a lot of lawn, but not enough places to put your leaves, you have too much lawn and are doing too much work.  When beds and borders are maintained with leaf mulch, they are less work to maintain than lawn by a long shot: no mowing, and little weeding.  If they are generously large enough for the normal growth of the shrubs therein, little pruning is needed. 
Shrub borders are often built way too small.  Two to three feet wide around a building is common, requiring tight hedging, which is high maintenance and not as beautiful as the natural shape of the plant.  If it is, one might reconsider one’s choice of shrub for that spot.  
Hedges have their place for providing privacy and wind shelter in tight spaces.  Sometimes, they provide it to the wrong people; they are security problem.  But many shrubs are hedged simply because they outgrew their space.  Limb them up or cut them to the ground and either let them re-grow naturally or replace them with something that will fit the space better as it grows, and you will save a lot of work and have beautiful shrubs, instead of ugly hedges.  Limbing up is preferable for trees.
 A line-of-motion path, with nugget bark and japanese maple leaf mulch, and a Hinoki cypress starting to get in the way.

Same path the next summer, with the cypress limbed up and the path improved with 4 x 8 sand.

The natural line of motion for people and dogs to go around a building is a smooth curve.  The edge of the bed should come out to that natural walking line, if space allows.  Any lawn occupying that natural bed space can be mulched heavily with leaves and the grass weeded out as it comes through.  A border of good-size rocks can contain the leaves and provide a solid edge for a look of permanence.

Lawn with a curved border, and line of motion bed, partially mulched with leaves. 

Lawns can be shrunk to places most easily mowed.  Steeper slopes and sharp angles can be mulched with 6 inches of leaves and planted to ground covers, shrubs, and perennials. 
Make room for your leaves in your landscape by shrinking lawns and expanding borders, and you will do less mowing, need less weeding and pruning, and not be wasting work, taking leaves out of where they do the most good and are hardest to remove.  You don’t need to get rid of leaves, just rearrange them to where they will do their natural job of stopping weeds and feeding soil.

Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener        541-955-9040
Gardening is easy, if you do it naturally.

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