The weather has been changing rapidly, and the rainy weekend certainly felt more like fall than summer. Still, I was surprised to find entire sections of the bike trail covered in leaves on Saturday.
Living in the forest I am still surrounded by a mostly green dome. However, I know that this will change in the coming weeks and I cannot let this opportunity go to waste.
Autumn leaves are an underutilized natural resource, one of the most readily available forms of organic matter, and the cheapest fertilizer on the market.
Return nutrients to the soil
During the spring and summer, trees extract nutrients and minerals from the soil and convert them into new leaves and branches. Nutrients and minerals return to the soil when leaves fall from trees and decompose in the soil. Pound for pound, the leaves of most trees contain twice the nutrients of manure.
Switching up your fall cleaning routine can improve your garden soil before spring. When the leaves are left on the ground, earthworms, bacteria and other microorganisms transform them into a rich humus. A healthy population of earthworms can drag a 1-inch layer of organic matter down to their underground burrows in a few months, aerating and fertilizing your soil, unseen.
The addition of this organic matter coats finer particles that provide more air space in clay soils and binds sandy soils, allowing for better water retention.
Organic matter also increases microbial activity, including beneficial bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that help plants grow.
Mulching, shredding, or chopping fall leaves helps them break down faster and prevents them from caking and suffocating soil or vegetation.
You can shred fallen leaves in your yard simply by running the mower over them. This process can cut sheets down to a tenth of their original size.
The best time to cover fallen leaves is when they are dry and less than an inch deep.
- Set your mower deck to 3 inches high.
- Remove the bagging accessories and block the chute on a rear discharge machine.
- Walk slowly giving your mower blades time to cut through the leaves.
- If your mower has a side discharge chute, start at the outside perimeter of your lawn and blow the blades toward the center so you can go over them more than once.
When you’re done, you may have a few patches of brown leaves covered with mulch, however they should settle to the ground and you should see grass grow through them within a few days. If the grass doesn’t emerge after a few days, run the mower over it again.
Use the leaves as mulch
Leaf mulch on your lawn returns nutrients to the soil and reduces weed germination. Using leaves as mulch in your flower and vegetable gardens can similarly impact the ecosystems within them.
The leaves can be applied as mulch, either whole or cut, in flower beds, vegetable gardens, and around trees and shrubs. This layer of natural mulch can protect soil microorganisms, provide a place for pollinators to overwinter, smother weeds, protect plants growing below ground, and provide a source of organic matter in the spring.
Trees and bushes. Many insects and pollinators depend on fallen leaves for food in the fall and complete their life cycle by overwintering in the leaf litter until spring. Removing this habitat in the fall reduces the number of emerging moths, butterflies, fireflies, bees and more. Disruption of these life cycles causes breaks in the food chain for birds and other wildlife in the spring and can affect the number of pollinators. Leaving a 2- to 4-inch layer of whole-leaf mulch under trees and shrubs can help maintain these vital habitats without giving up all of your grass. Take care to keep the mulch layer away from the trunk and root crown.
Flower beds. A 2- to 3-inch layer of chopped or shredded leaves applied to your flower beds will help maintain an even soil temperature throughout the winter, which will protect tender root systems and microorganisms and prevent frost damage to the bulbs. , tuberous flowers and less hardy perennials. The mulch layer will also recycle nutrients and feed your plants., conserve soil moisture during dry periods and prevent the appearance of weeds. Mulch should be applied after the first hard frost.
Vegetable garden. A 2-inch layer of whole or chopped leaves applied to the top of your garden can provide an overwintering area for pollinators, smother winter weeds, and add organic matter to the soil when tilled in the spring.
Leaf composting is fairly simple and inexpensive. A recommended ratio is 25 to 30 parts brown material, such as dry leaves, to one part green material, such as grass clippings. When you’re shredding leaves with your lawnmower, you’re basically creating compost for your lawn.
However, you can also compost leaves in the fall to spread in your garden or flower beds in the spring.
- The first layer in your compost pile should be 6 inches of leaves.
- The second layer should be about 2 inches of grass clippings or other green material, such as fruit and vegetable waste, manure, coffee grounds, and tea bags.
- The final layer is two inches of native soil. Contains decomposers and prevents odor development.
- Flip your pile twice during the first month.
- After that, just rotate it one or two more times over the next three or four months and it should be good to go.
Realistically, if you had enough leaves and green material, you could cover your vegetable garden and till the entire compost pile in the spring.
If you have a lot more brown material than you need for your compost pile this fall, you can store it in garbage bags with little holes in them that allow the leaves to decompose naturally. Wetting the bags of leaves or leaving the holes in direct contact with the soil will speed up decomposition, creating mold on the leaves. You can then add the leaf mold to your compost pile in the spring and summer when brown materials aren’t as readily available.
Improve water quality
Cleaning the leaves and reusing them on your property keeps them out of storm drains and local waterways, improving water quality. When the leaves reach local water sources, they release nutrients as they decompose and can encourage algae growth.
Keep yard waste on site
Keeping your yard waste in your yard has countless conservation benefits. Its reuse not only feeds back into the vibrant ecosystem that exists there, it can also prevent the accidental transport of invasive plant and animal species and reduces the resources used to transport and remove it.
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