Autumn is only a few days old and it has taken no time letting us know it is in charge. Cold and rain have been the norm, and even though I know there are still warm days to come in the next few weeks, those days are nearly done! One of the biggest chores of autumn is taking care of all the leaves. A hundred or so years ago this would not have been one of the top jobs, and may not have even been thought of necessary in my area of the west. But that was before the “cult” of the perfect bluegrass lawn was fully established.
Now we all know that the leaves will choke out our bluegrass and leave opening for weeds and evil spirits. But really, other than that what will they do? Let’s take a quick look at what else leaves can do:
- They contain most of the nutrients that live leaves have, with the exception of nitrogen and water. This includes iron, calcium, zinc, and magnesium.
- Leaves are great for feeding beneficial microorganisms.
- Leaves naturally build soil structure and help water penetrate after they have broken down a bit.
- Leaves make great deep mulch for protecting perennial plants that are less winter hardy in you area.
- Leaves are great at sheltering a lawn from cold and allow it to recover quickly from winter once spring sets in.
Now that I have a house with a bit of gardening space, I let my neighbors know that I am willing to take their unwanted leaves. There are a number of ways I can use them to enrich my garden and improve plant quality:
- Till them in. I am not a fan of tilling, but if you are going to do an autumn cultivation, putting leaves in as you do it will help prevent some of the damage that tilling causes.
- Compost them. By spring you will have some very nice compost to place in trouble spots.
- Mulch your plants that are borderline cold hardy. I have done this very successfully for my artichoke plants in the past and expect to do it as soon as leaves are available this year.
- General-purpose mulch, this gives the soil a great boost through the winter and you don’t have to do as much work as you do in traditional composting. The leaves break down and stay put better if they are roughed up a bit before you spread them. I am sure the neighborhood kids would love to help with that!
- In windy areas the leaves can be left in bags in the garden. If the bags are plastic I like to cut a few holes in the tops and bottoms of the bags so water can get in and out. Then cut a few more on the sides to let the composting leaves get some fresh air. Once winter is over they will be ready to be dumped out.
- If you are using paper leaf bags, you can just place the bags where you want them and let both the leaves and the bags decompose. By spring they will be done and all you will need to do is plant.
I hope this gives you some ideas on how to use a great free resource.