Making Your Leaves Work For You
You can tell that fall is here by the bulging bags and piles of leaves sitting at the curb in some municipalities. But what a waste to let your leaves leave home. Leaves have a high mineral content and contain large amounts of fibrous organic matter. You can compost them or use them as a mulch to benefit your garden and dramatically reduce your household's garbage.
When autumn comes to a forest and the leaves drop to the ground, they are worked on by bacteria and fungi to turn them into a rich dark mould which feeds the trees and other plants in years to follow. We can learn a valuable lesson from this natural re-cycling and put it to good use in our own backyards.
You can compost leaves in a number of different ways:
- Add some leaves to your compost heap along with kitchen scraps and other yard waste. If you compost a lot of kitchen scraps, the addition of dry leaves will prevent the pile from becoming too wet. Also, leaves are a high-carbon material to balance the high nitrogen content of kitchen scraps. (Your compost heap works best if you add both high-carbon and high-nitrogen materials.)
- Save some leaves in the fall to add to your bin throughout the year; you can store some in a garbage bag next to your bin so that every time you add some kitchen scraps you can throw on a handful of leaves. Avoid putting in too many leaves at one time as they may clump together and prevent good air circulation.
- Compost leaves separately in a simple pile or a second bin. A good spot for a pile is an out of the way location where there is some protection from the wind, e.g. a corner of the yard where two fences come together.
- A second bin can be as simple as heavy-duty wire mesh formed into a cylinder and latched together. Here are some simple instructions for constructing and using a wire mesh bin:
- From a roll of mesh 36" wide, cut a piece 11' long. When you join the ends you will have a rigid hoop that will stand on its own. Simply fill the hoop with leaves.
- You can stockpile additional leaves nearby to add as the leaves in the hoop settle. To speed things up moisten and add a bit of soil.
- In the spring you can turn the material: lift the hoop straight up and over the leaves, place the hoop next to the pile of leaves, pitchfork the leaves back into the hoop adding water if there are dry pockets. The leaves should be ready for use the next spring.
- By themselves, leaves will decompose very slowly. To speed things up you can add a nitrogen supplement such as manure, blood meal or bone meal. (Approximately two cups blood meal or other supplement to each wheelbarrow load of leaves.)
- Here's a slightly different method of composting leaves. Shred the leaves first, place them in garbage bags, moisten, close the bags and leave them till spring. This will produce leaf mould which you can dig into your garden in the spring or add to your compost pile for further decomposition.
- Regardless of the method of composting, shredding leaves first will greatly reduce their volume. You can run over them with a lawn mower, or place them in a garbage can and use a lawn trimming tool. Shredded leaves not only take up much less space, they are easier to mix and turn as well.
- You can also dig some leaves directly into your garden to prepare the soil for spring planting.
- You can use leaves as a mulch on your vegetable garden or flower beds. Mulch is a layer of material which covers the soil surface. You can use some in the fall and save some to use in the spring.
- As a mulch the leaves will conserve soil moisture, insulate the soil, reduce weed growth, and add organic matter and nutrients to the soil as they decompose. Acid leaves - oak, pine or spruce - can be used, shredded, as a winter mulch on acid-loving small fruits such as strawberries, blueberries or cranberries, or on plants such as azaleas and rhododendrons.
- You can also use leaf mould as a mulch. Leaf mould is made up of leaves which have decomposed to the point where the leaves are no longer distinguishable, and just the skeletal system of the leaf is left. Leaf mould can be used to feed perennial plants that are difficult to cultivate such as grapes, berries and fruit trees. Leaf mould can also be mixed into the soil before seed planting.
- Some municipalities still collect leaves and compost them at a central site. Call your municipal office to find out what applies in your area.