The Value of Leaves

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Golden Fall Leaves

Foliage season is a mixed blessing. I have one eye on the gorgeous spectacle of changing colors and the other eye on the rake. 

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Trees that were just beginning to show some color yesterday will soon be brown and on the ground, their brief moment of glory gone.

Look at all those leaves as brown gold. The leaves of one large tree can be worth as much as $50 worth of plant food and humus. They are a rich source of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and trace minerals the tree roots have mined from deep in the subsoil. Pound for pound, leaves contain twice the mineral content of manure. The huge amount of organic matter they offer can be used to improve soil structure. Leaf humus can lighten heavy clay soils and increase the moisture retention of dry sandy soils. No organic gardener should pass up this opportunity for a free soil amendment.

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If you are not already composting, now is a good time to start. Rake your leaves into loose piles or enclose them in bins, if you wish. If you want to speed up decomposition, mow over the leaves a few times with your lawn mower or shred them into smaller pieces with a leaf shredder or chipper. Many leaf vacs have a shredder in them to reduce the volume of the leaves being inhaled. Mix a shovelful of soil in each layer of leaves to introduce helpful microorganisms to the pile. Leaves are high in carbon but low in nitrogen so it helps to add a source of nitrogen like manure or grass clippings to help feed the bacteria that will be doing all the work of breaking down the leaves. Spent plants from the garden that were not diseased or infested with insects can be added to the pile along with kitchen scraps.

Shredded leaves also make a good mulch. Just blow them into your flower beds and under trees and shrubs while mowing. We cover the beds in our vegetable garden with a layer of chopped leaves to keep the soil from washing away over the winter. The best time to mulch perennials is after the ground has frozen, so put aside another pile of shredded leaves to use later in the fall.

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Don’t want to rake at all? Researchers at Michigan State University have proven that mowing leaves and leaving them on your lawn improves the soil, lessening the need for fertilizer in the spring. They recommend setting your mower blade 3 inches high and mowing once a week while the leaves are falling.

Need another excuse not to rake? Fallen leaves help create mini-ecosystems for worms, fungi, and soil bacteria. They may take a few years to rot away but they will be feeding countless microorganisms, and sheltering insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Leaf litter provides a welcome source of insects and seeds for birds and other wildlife too so don’t fret if you don’t get the leaves raked.

~ By  Robin Sweetser

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser's backyard gardening tips. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer's Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer's Market.

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The Value of Leaves by Robin Sweetser

Are oak leaves good for composting or putting in your garden?

Oak and maple leaves are on

Oak and maple leaves are on the acidic side but they make great compost when mixed with other stuff such as grass clippings, kitchen waste, and spent garden plants. We usually throw some wood ashes onto the compost pile too. They act like lime to sweeten it up. We also use shredded oak & maple leaves as mulch and cover some of our garden beds with them in the fall to protect the soil from washing away during heavy rainfall. Oak leaves are awesome!

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