The clear, cool days of fall are perfect for wrapping up last-minute garden chores, such as winterizing perennial herbs, flowers and shrubs. It’s also a good time to cultivate existing garden beds or create new beds for spring planting. But there’s one chore in the fall that not everyone looks forward to – raking leaves. Sometimes there are so many leaves that homeowners spend weeks trying to get rid of the deepening piles. But instead of raking and burning, or bagging leaves for the garbage, consider putting your fall leaves to use in the garden as a protective, nutrient-rich mulch.
Our vegetable garden literally surrounds our house and the underlying earth is solid greasy clay with a few rocks thrown in for fun. When we set out to build the garden in this spot, we knew we had our work cut out for us. But because this wasn’t our first time gardening in harsh Ozark clay soil, we also knew how to take advantage of the transformative powers of fall leaves. The first thing we do when making a new garden bed or cultivating an existing one in the fall, is to smother the bed with fall leaves and turn them into the soil to improve tilth and drainage. Despite the fact that they are difficult to work with, clay soils are actually very dense in nutrients. Problem is, those nutrients are bound very tightly to the clay particles and must be encouraged to release them. One way to do this is to incorporate organic matter, such as fall leaves, into the soil. Fall is also the perfect time to add other soil amendments such as compost, rotted manure, and lime. Once the beds have been enriched, the exposed soil can be mulched with more leaves, which will prevent erosion, nutrient leaching, and weeds.
Whether used on new or existing beds, there are two ways to use leaves: whole or chopped. Whole leaves are best used around perennial plants and in places where little vegetation is wanted, such as around the base of mature trees and shrubs, or in walkways. It is important to remember that whole leaves may form thick mats that can smother small plants and herbs, so use whole leaves only around large, well-established trees and shrubs. It is also important to keep in mind that while whole leaves help retain soil moisture, they also tend to shed water across their surfaces, making overhead watering difficult and ineffective during very dry periods. But for winter mulching, whole leaves work very well at protecting the soil from heavy rains and runoff.
When it comes to mulching vegetable, herb and perennial flower gardens, I prefer leaves that have been chopped, or at least broken down a little. The smaller pieces allow more air and water to reach the soil, and they don’t blow around in the wind as much as whole leaves do. Chopped leaves are easier to manipulate around small plants or to push aside during planting time. They also break down faster.
Chopping the leaves involves a bit of additional work, but in the end it is well worth it. If you don’t have a chipper-shredder or another ingenious device, simply rake leaves into a long thin and run over it with a lawnmower – preferably one that is armed with a bagging attachment. One or two passes with the mower is usually sufficient. Once chopped, simply spread the leaves several inches deep. If you are mulching perennials, be sure to leave the tops of plants showing just a bit.
Anyone who knows me, knows I am an avid proponent of mulching in all seasons. Mulching in winter keeps the soil at an even temperature, which prevents the heaving of plants during freeze-thaw-freeze cycles. It can, if applied at the right time, keep the ground frozen or keep the ground from freezing, depending on your needs. In the summer, mulch keeps the soil cool and moist, reducing the need for excessive watering. Of course, mulch keeps the garden tidy and weed free, and that reduces the workload throughout the year. Mulch also shelters a host of beneficial creatures such as frogs, toads, worms and fungi – all of which are a part of the fertility and health of the soil. This amazing thing called mulch is everything that it is cracked up to be, and more.
For me, leaves on the garden are the icing on the proverbial cake. That icing eventually melts away and becomes the soil itself. The leaves we put on the garden now will virtually disappear by June. Fortunately for us, and for all the other life in the garden, we won’t have to wait that long to enjoy its benefits. But the most wondrous part of using fall leaves as mulch is that this simple and effective item is provided in abundance free of charge year after year after year.
© 2016 Jill Henderson Feel free to share this article, but please be sure to include author and website credits and a link back to the original article.
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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.
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