Consider the leaves of autumn. The leaves of autumn provide some of the most striking visual experiences of the year. Songs are written about them. Children (and some emancipated adults) leap into raked piles of them with the purest of abandon.
And the savvy gardener won’t complain about raking them up because said gardener knows these falling leaves are full of nutrients the home garden needs next spring. The innocent (and free) leaves of autumn can easily be turned into rich compost for next year’s bountiful harvest.
Double Check Your Trees
But hold on, ladies and gentlemen. Could it be that the showy leaves of autumn are not all that innocent?
Are there dogwood trees on your property? You probably know these beautiful trees, as they say, are ‘under stress,’ a not so polite way of saying the dogwoods are genuinely threatened by anthracnose, more popularly, or better said, more ominously known as leaf blight. Numerous species of hardwood trees, especially in the eastern United States, have leaf blight. Anthracnose is a fungus.
Depending on the species, a tree afflicted with leaf blight has leaves that look like somebody flicked the hot ashes of a burning cigarette on them. People who talk ‘tree talk’ say such leaves look ‘scorched.’ Again depending on the species, sometimes the leaves just turn brown and drop off or curl up.
The point is you don’t want to be using leaves from these trees, or any diseased tree for that matter, as mulch for your home garden, or around shrubs, or other trees. Leaves from fruit trees are especially suspect. Apple scab is bad news.
Really, all that is required from you is to be a little careful.
Healthy Trees, Healthy Leaves, Healthy Home Garden
Now having said all that if you’re using leaves from healthy trees autumn can be a time for you to save some money.
Those piles of leaves you hate to rake up are free, high quality fertilizer for the containers in your patio garden or the plot out back. This is particularly effective if you shred the leaves. Shredding makes the leaves decay–decompose–quicker. Also, if you’re using less fertilizer, you will be discharging less polluted water into nearby streams or lakes.
The whole shredding process is pretty easy. If your autumn leaf production is covering your lawn, just mow the lawn. Then if your mower has some way to collect the grass clippings and the shredded leaves, like a bag, you just empty the bag into any larger container and spread the resulting mulch wherever you need it.
Some gardeners just till the shredded leaves/clippings into the ground. A rotary tiller works well for this process.
Make Compost, Too
You can also use the grass clippings, shredded leaf mixture to make compost. Composting is an entirely different topic, well beyond the scope of this short piece, but very quickly it should be said that the mix of leaves and grass clippings make a well balanced compost.
Possibly you are familiar with the kind of smelly compost heaps made exclusively of grass clippings. That heap is producing too much nitrogen and that’s where the smell comes from. An ideal finished compost is a mixture of a carbon source, such as the brown leaves, and a nitrogen source, such as the green grass.
Using leaves or other organic matter as fertilizer is a very old practice. Remember the Thanksgiving story where the Native Americans showed the newly arrived Americans how to use fish to make corn grow? The use of autumn leaves revives that practical idea. Unless you happen to like the smell of decaying fish, autumn leaves are certainly one up on the fish idea.
Practical and Environmentally Friendly
While very knowledgeable gardeners have been using autumn leaves as fertilizer for many years, uninformed gardeners and people who just don’t like the look of leaves on their carefully manicured lawns have been raking up the leaves and got into the bad habit of bagging the leaves as well as their grass clippings to be taken away to the landfill.
This got to be a problem, and expense, for communities all over the country. And back in the late 1980s, a professor at Texas A&M University jumped on an idea originally promoted by The Professional Lawn Care Association of America (PLCAA) under the name ‘Grasscycling.’ You may know the term since it seems to be making a comeback. The PLCAA saw that landfills were choking on contributions of grass clippings by the ton. The grass clippings amounted to as much as half the yard waste going into the landfill. And the PLCAA urged people to keep the clippings on their lawns as fertilizer. (The PLCAA merged with another association in 2005 and no longer operates under its original name.)
The Texas A&M prof, Bill Knoop, did a rigorous study that showed not only did grass clippings help home owners save money on fertilizer but that leaves would fall into that same category. And it turned out that by only cutting off the top third of the grass and leaving the clippings where they fell, it took 38 percent less time to take care of a lawn. The lawns also looked 30 percent better.
And Bill Knoop also demonstrated a talent for promotion. He turned his lawn maintenance and environmentally friendly practices into a program with the catchy name, “Don’t Bag It.” The program was quickly adopted in just about every State.
A Gift from Nature That Keeps on Giving
One exception: Do bag your leftover leaves and keep them in easy reach of your compost heap or compost bin. And mix shredded leaves with the mountain of grass clippings you can accumulate in the spring and summer next year. This will ensure you’ve concocted that ideal compost recipe.
Just don’t set out the bags for the sanitation types to haul off to the landfill!
And by all means try composting. The result will have a positive effect on both the quantity and quality of your harvest next growing season.
I’ve had a serious interest in gardening and recently decided to combine that interest with my skills as a long time freelance writer. The result is a website devoted to enhancing the productivity of a garden as well as the quality of whatever is planted there. The website is fun without being trivial, and informative without being academic. [http://gardeningheadquarters.com]
I’d like to recommend two non-commercial websites for further reading. Both are plainl