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A View From The Woods - Leaves for Free - 10/10/11


Fri, Oct 7th, 2011
Posted in Columnists

Our wonderful hardwood trees are transforming their leaves to gold and scarlet. Breathtaking beauty is all around us, at the very moment those leaves are letting go and drifting down to earth in a constant reminder of how fleeting the autumn season is.

Those leaves are the best natural soil builders on earth. Ever wonder how a forest can maintain itself for hundreds, even thousands, of years? The forest ecosystem is fueled by the massive plant biomass deposited every fall. Deep tree roots bring up minerals locked below the soil layer, and every fall those minerals fall with the leaves to become part of the living ecosystem, as mulch and compost.

Take note: your gardens and landscape can mimic the forests with a little help. Now is the time to gather leaves for the best fertilizer and soil conditioner imaginable. I cannot fathom why people throw leaves away.

I use leaves three different ways.

Pile Leaves.

Wait a year or two, then deliver the fine black humus to nearby garden beds. You may need a circle of fencing to keep them from blowing away if out in the open, or else choose a spot protected by bushes or trees. So easy.

Make Compost.

Leaves are the carbon material for our kitchen compost, held in three side-by-side bins not too far from the door. I fill the bins with leaves in the fall, and my husband adds all our organic waste, all year long. A turning or two with a garden fork makes rich compost good for delivery to favorite plants needing a boost, like hostas and roses. Fall is the time to use the compost and immediately refill the bin with more leaves.

Put Leaves to Bed.

For years I raked leaves off our endless driveway and hauled them in a cart directly to my vegetable beds. Now I'm older and spoiled with a riding mower that collects chopped leaves. Chopped leaves are easier to transport, and once laid down and moistened, they form a mat that stays put until spring, when they are mostly broken down into soil. I rarely need to dig or weed before plopping seeds right into their rows. I throw bushels of chopped leaves into the raspberry and asparagus beds too. This is composting in place-no need to turn or haul the compost because it is right where it needs to be. Easiest of all.

"Farming with Tree Leaves" is an informative article by Will Bonsall, who lives in Maine and is affiliated with the Seed Savers Exchange near Decorah, Iowa. He notes that leaves contain a considerable amount of nitrogen, although it is not available to plants until it breaks down. Chopping leaves with a lawnmower or leaf shredder makes the composting process much faster.

Indeed, tree leaves may be the only thing needed for a productive and healthy garden. If you are going to rake leaves anyway, why not keep them and let nature give you a hand?

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