WICHE: Save your leaves to save your plants

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Don't simply rake them and bag them. Make them work for you.

By Jeneen Wiche

Leaf raking is an autumn chore that only children enjoy because they get to undo it in one fell swoop. We rake and pile and they jump.

I propose a new approach that just may make us all happy: Adults can still rake a little, children can still play, and trees will benefit from some mulch and fertilizer.

At the farm raking leaves is passé; we let them stay where they fall (within reason, of course), which is usually beneath their canopy.

This may be a bit of an overstatement because some small yards can quickly fill up with leaves, smothering grass and perennial beds, but there is a happy medium. Rake away some leaves, composting them out back for use in the garden later. Rake small leaves back beneath the canopy of trees, into shrub borders, perennial beds or the vegetable garden, and use the mulching mower to chop the big stuff right back onto the lawn.

If you walk in the forest what do you see? The forest floor is as rich as it gets in terms of soil.

Years of leaf mold has collected, decayed and returned valuable nutrients to the soil, which is then used by the trees of the forest. Traditionally, in our own back yards, we remove this valuable natural resource and set in on the curb to be taken away by big trucks and dumped in a landfill.

There is something not quite right about this, especially if we turn around and buy a high-nitrogen fertilizer to spread on lawns and around trees and shrubs. Use common sense to remove excess leaves but reserve some and use them the way nature intended.

Not only will the leaves feed our plants, but they also will act as mulch, reducing weeds and conserving moisture.

If the excess seems cumbersome, consider starting a compost pile. Compost is generally comprised of leaves, grass clippings, twigs garden waste and kitchen waste (no meat products allowed). As the organic material breaks down, it turns into nutrient-rich food for your garden and landscape material – for free.

In order to maintain a healthy compost pile, the goal is to create an environment that encourages mycorrhizal fungal and bacterial activity. This activity, along with earthworms, is what helps break down the organic material into compost.

Using leaves as mulching material around your plants and trees will also encourage this desired activity – again, for free.

It is important to turn your compost to supply oxygen to the material. This fact sometimes overwhelms people, but, do not worry, one flip a month is usually enough. Oxygen and water encourage the right type of bacterial growth.

You can add water and horse manure to speed up the healthy aerobic activity, which aids in the process of decomposition. Otherwise just be patient, turn the pile from time to time, and you will have some great compost next spring.

If a compost pile seems unlikely, then simply transfer the leaves to the vegetable garden. Leaves left to decay during the winter in the garden plot can be turned under in spring before you are ready to plant.

Doing this every year will increase soil fertility, drainage and tilth, which will feed your vegetables slowly throughout the summer without having to buy additional amendments or fertilizer. Vegetables fed this way show an increase in yield and pest resistance.


Check out gardening columnist Jeneen Wiche’s work at www.SwallowRailFarm.com. You can find her columns also at www.SentinelNews.com/agriculture. She answers questions once a month in SentinelNewsPlus. To submit a question, send an E-mail to jwiche@shelbybb.netand type “Sentinel-News” in the subject field.