Fall leaves have big benefit for gardens

Many homeowners dread raking leaves. Well, hopefully this column will change your negative attitude towards the chore of raking and disposing of leaves into a positive one that your garden will benefit from.
Previous columns have described the virtues of fertilizing with organic matter. Leaves happen to be one of the most plentiful and nutrient-rich forms of organic matter that can be readily made into compost.
Leaves also can be used as mulch on plants for winter protection.
This column will cover the use of those menacing leaves in your yard and inform you how to turn them into helpful products for your garden.
Leaves make fantastic compost. After all, the forest uses leaves as compost every fall. With the exception of oak leaves, most leaves will fully decay into the soil by the following spring.
After raking and gathering the leaves from your yard, apply them directly to the soil of your vegetable garden before you till it. The tiller will work the leaves into the soil, where they will decay over the winter months—providing nutrients in the spring to the new plants.
The same thing can be done in your flower beds by applying the leaves on the soil around your perennials and digging thoroughly into the soil, making sure to cover them completely with soil.
Leaves also can be used on your perennials as insulation for protection against the winter climate. Pile your raked leaves deeply over any perennials that need winter protection.
Once it snows, you will have a complete layer of protection in place.
Leaves can be used when protecting roses and small shrubs, as well (a future column will provide more details).
Leaves also can be used as a mulch to keep weeds down—the only problem is that we usually don’t have a good supply of dead leaves in the summer months.
But if you save completely dry leaves in garbage bags over the winter, you may be able to use them as mulch the next growing season.
Leaves also can be added directly to your composter. Just remember our rules of composting: brown materials must be mixed with green materials (usually kitchen scraps this time of year) at equal amounts in order to keep the composting balance working.
Do not overload your composter with just leaves as you will slow the decay process.
If you have too many leaves for the composter all at once, you can gather the leaves and package them in green garbage bags, moisten (just damp, not soaked) the leaves with the hose, and then close up the bag.
Store these bags somewhere out of the way in your yard and, come spring, you will have bags of compost ready to apply to your gardens.
You also can add a shovelful of soil from the garden to each bag to speed up the decay process.
As you can see, it is easy to put all of those leaves to good use in your garden. Yes, they still need to be gathered up in some form to be utilized, but some tips below will help you out.
Make sure that if the trees in your yard had leaves with insect or disease damage, including mould, do not use them as compost. Package these leaves up in garbage bags and remove them from your property.
The organisms that cause damage or diseases can over-winter, even if the leaves decay, and cause the problem to reappear the next year.
If you have mostly oak leaves in your yard, you want to be aware that oak leaves are very slow to decay so the plastic bag composting method usually is best.
Oak leaves are very acidic and can change soil pH. As such, use oak leaf compost for plants that like acidic soil (i.e., evergreen trees and shrubs, azaleas, rhododendrons, bog gardens) or mix one-third oak leaves to two-thirds other leaf species.
If you do not like raking, try a leaf vacuum. The model I have sucks the leaves up and shreds them, making them easier to add to the garden right away.
Leaves also will decay faster when shredded—even oak leaves.
Some lawn mower models also have an option that will vacuum leaves from your lawn or shred them into small pieces (check your owner’s manual).
Make sure when adding leaves to be composted that they are free of litter and large sticks and branches, as these items do not decay well.
You can use the decorative Hallowe’en bags filled with leaves for decorating your yard, and use the garbage bag method of composting as mentioned above to get double the mileage out of those decorative bags.
Another method of disposing large quantities of leaves is to dig a trench in your garden, fill with leaves, top with soil, and continue throughout all your garden until all the leaves are buried.
They will decay over winter and your plants will thank you next year.
I hope this column has allowed you to see the value of the fall leaves after the colours have faded and they are now covering your lawn.
For years I have sought out the leaves in my neighbourhood and beyond for all of the reasons listed above.
If you are following the advice of the column on fall lawn care, you know it is important to get the leaves raked off of the lawn, but at least you will get some value from all of your hard work.

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