Ahh, the beauty of autumn...how it touches our souls. And feeds our gardens. :)
*Scroll down for THREE ways we use autumn leaves for our garden!*
My cousin Valerie took the photo above, and I love it. It captures those fleeting weeks of colorful sunny autumn glory so well! Thanks for letting me use it here, Valerie. <3
In a week or two, the leaves will all have fallen, and the tree branches will be bare.
I've been watching the leaves of the maple in the front yard fall steadily all morning, with my loyal cat next to me, his eyes wide and his tail twitching. All the twirling movement of the leaves as they drop has put his hunting instincts into overdrive. As he dreams of pouncing and leaping, I've been pondering the end of summer and the value of those leaves.
Autumn has been as beautiful as ever. I've enjoyed many neighborhood walks, gazing up through the trees lining the streets, the sun pouring through colored leaves and lighting them up like flames. Soon enough, the sun's light won't feel quite as warm, and it will peer through bare and black limbs as winter makes her appearance.
The beautifully colored leaves are more than just part of an incredibly appealing outdoor landscape; they are also one of the easiest and most available materials to collect and use in the garden.
If you Garden, Keep Your Leaves!
I admit that in my pre-garden days I never realized how important leaves were in the cycle of life and death. In nature's forests, the yearly shedding of leaves provides rich hummus below. The soil is deeply enriched as the leaves decay and stored up nutrients become available to new life. New plants, worms, and the millions of unseen microbes below the soil all thrive on the decaying leaf material.
Now that I've been growing food for a few years, I know I'd be crazy not to use this rich resource. Once I've enjoyed the immense beauty of the vivid leaves and it's time to collect them into piles, I can make them ready to use in the garden as a valuable resource in three main ways:
Mulch-Piles of fallen leaves can be added directly on top of garden beds as you put them to sleep for the winter. Covering bare soil is important to prevent erosion and to keep the rich ecosystem happily going on through the winter. We have been adding leaves to our newly planted garlic bed. The leaves are less likely to blow away from the beds if they've been broken up first.
Added to compost-Most gardeners who compost (and I hope that is ALL of you!) find it challenging to find enough carbon for their piles and bins. Nitrogen seems easy to come by, mostly in the form of veggie scraps and spent garden plants, but carbon can be a little more elusive (straw, paper, cardboard, and dried leaves are some popular sources). Carbon should outnumber nitrogen for the most efficient piles (2 parts nitrogen and 3 parts carbon). When it comes to the valuable carbon of leaves, some gardeners even go as far as to shred the leaves from autumn and store them in bags in order to use up in the compost pile through the summer when carbon is harder to come by.
Leaf Mold-Leaf mold (which is not actually mold but simply a term for soil made of decayed leaves) is made by creating a compost pile of just leaves. The leaves will compost more quickly if they are chopped up in some way--you can run them over with a lawn mower (mulching attachment with a bag makes this very easy), or chop them up with a string trimmer inside a durable container like a metal trash can (sounds a bit terrifying to me, but people do it), or you can get fancy and use a leaf shredder, which as far as I can tell, is just the same method as using a string trimmer but less terrifying. I have to say, in our case--a couple afternoons of jumping on our piles and throwing them around like crazy does a pretty good job. Not to mention it's insanely fun. :) Once the jumping is over, we suck up our piles into our leaf blower, which conveniently has a mulching option (and which we did not even realize until we become interested in actually keeping our leaves). Here is the leaf blower/mulcher we have and it suits our needs perfectly. The entire amount of leaves from the maple in our front yard (which would normally fill 10-12 bags if not mulched first) fits into the corner of our back yard where we've set up a simple wire bin. Two sides are formed by our fence, and the rest is fashioned from wire fencing we repurposed from our potato growing experiment. This leaf mold, once finished, can be used as a nutrient-rich mulch or worked into the soil as a conditioner during the early spring months. I've even read that fully-composted leaf mold is a great addition to a homemade seed-starting mix.
Enjoy the last of the fall leaves, and when they've all come down, put them to good use. If you don't have trees, you could definitely ask neighbors who do have trees for their leaves, especially if it's obvious they don't use them. The easiest way I've collected more leaves? Asking permission to take bags from the curb! The neighbors don't want them and they are already bagged up; it's a win/win! *Just make sure that the leaves you are taking come from yards that have NOT been treated by chemicals!*