MUKWONAGO, WI — Raking fall leaves can seem like a chore and a never-ending one, at that. Reduce time and effort spent managing fall leaves by putting this valuable resource to work in the landscape.
Use a lawnmower with mulching blades installed to recycle leaves right where they fall. As the grass is mowed any leaves on it will be shredded into smaller pieces.
If the pieces are the size of a quarter or smaller, the lawn will be fine. Then, as these leaf pieces decompose, they add organic matter and nutrients to the soil.
Another option is to attach a bagger to shred and collect the leaves with every pass of the mower. Only use grass clippings collected from lawns that have not been treated with a weed killer this fall.
Of course there is always the option to burn a few extra calories by raking the leaves into a pile. Shred with a leaf shredder or mower and spread them over the soil surface around perennials.
Leaf mulch helps insulate plant roots, conserve moisture, suppress weeds and improve the soil as it breaks down. Remember to bag shredded leaves that are wanted for next season. The bags can be tucked out of sight for winter under trees or around the foundation of the house for added insulation.
Dig extra shredded leaves into vacant annual flower and vegetable gardens or incorporate them into the soil while preparing new planting beds. They will break down over winter, improving the drainage in heavy clay soils and the water-holding ability in fast-draining soils.
Create compost with shredded leaves and other landscape trimmings, but do not use meat, bones or dairy that can attract rodents. Avoid diseased, insect-infested trimmings and weeds that can survive in compost piles that don’t produce enough heat to kill these unwanted pests.
Start with a compost pile that’s at least three feet high and wide for efficient decomposition. Place a mixture of shredded fall leaves, grass clippings free of herbicides, vegetable scraps and other landscape trimmings in an 8- to 10-inch layer.
Cover with compost and sprinkle with a low nitrogen, slow release fertilizer. Repeat the layers until the pile is the desired height. Then moisten until it’s the consistency of a damp sponge.
Turn the pile occasionally, moving the material in the center to the outer edge and the less decomposed trimmings to the hotter center. It’s a great workout and speeds decomposition. Or pile the materials in a heap and let nature do the work; it just takes longer.
Oak and large maple leaves both make great mulches and additions to the compost pile but are slow to break down. Shred them with the mower or leaf shredder first for better results.
Avoid black walnut leaves that contain juglone, a compound which is toxic to many plants. Once the leaves are fully decomposed the compost is safe to use.
Once the value of putting fall leaves to work in the landscape is realized, those who do will start considering them as a gift versus a curse from nature especially as the results of those efforts are seen in a more beautiful landscape.
Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses How to Grow Anything DVD series and the nationally syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV and radio segments. Myers’ website features gardening videos, podcasts, audio tips and monthly gardening checklists online at www.MelindaMyers.com.