Express-News Weekly Column
Saturday, November 18, 2000 Submitted by Calvin Finch, Ph.D.,
Director of Conservation, SAWS, and Horticulturist
LEAVES AS A RESOURCE
Remember how much fun it was
to rake the leaves into huge piles and play in them until it was
time to bag or burn them? Times have change. We can still rake
our leaves, but it is environmentally incorrect to have them take
up valuable landfill space or to pollute the air as they burn.
The good news is that leaves
are too valuable to waste. Rake them up if you need the exercise
or you want your children or grandchildren to have the opportunity
to play in the piles, but afterward use them to improve your landscape.
Leaves make great mulch. It does
not matter what kind. In a few weeks pecan, red oak, cedar elm,
hackberry, mulberry, sycamore, bur oak, chinkapin oak and the
other deciduous trees will drop their leaves. Piled four inches
deep over the roots of newly planted trees, leaf mulch will increase
the tree's growth rate by as much as forty percent over the same
tree with grass growing against the trunk.
Used three or four inches deep
in the shrub and perennial border, leaves provide an ideal place
for ground-feeding birds like towhees, American sparrows and thrashers
to search for seeds and insects while the mulch conserves water,
insulates the soil from cold or hot, and reduces weeds.
Leaves are my favorite mulch
in the vegetable garden because they can be incorporated into
the soil after every crop. In fact, some vegetable gardeners count
on the autumn leaf fall for their winter garden and the spring
live oak leaf drop (February) for the spring garden. Leaves applied
four inches deep between rows in the vegetable garden make excellent
pathways while performing their duty as mulch. The soil is not
compacted as you work the rows and no mud is tracked.
In my neighborhood there are
several Master Gardeners. Early in my history in the neighborhood
I made the error of collecting bagged leaves from the curb belonging
to some neighbors. I believed I was saving precious landfill space
and would be improving the soil in my yard. I was quickly alerted
that the leaves "were already spoken for" by the other gardeners.
That may not be the case in your neighborhood. Use any extra leaves
you have and those unwanted by your neighbors to make compost.
Make a structure of a stiff hog
wire about five feet in diameter and three feet deep. Fill the
structure to overfilling with leaves salted with about five pounds
of lawn fertilizer. In four or five months the leaves will decompose
to a homogenous, fresh-smelling, soil-like compost that will work
wonders to revitalize your container plants and raised beds or
To speed up the decomposition
and get some exercise, remove the wire from the pile and move
it a few feet away. Reshape the circle, clip the wire ends together,
and shovel the pile from the old location to the new location.
The act of turning over the pile incorporates air into the organic
material and mixes the materials. Do this mixing every two weeks
and dampen the pile after the mixing and you can have the compost
ready for use in six weeks. It will work so fast that you will
be able to feel the heat as the leaves break down.
If you are not into collecting
your leaves, one of the best ways to take advantage of their value
to your landscape is to let them decompose on the lawn. In a damp,
mild winter they will melt down to nothing in eight to ten weeks.
Speed up this process by mowing the leaves and leaving them on
the lawn. Leaves are not as valuable to the grass as grass clippings,
but they do provide small amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium,
and all the micro-nutrients. Most importantly, however, the decomposing
leaves serve as food for beneficial microorganisms and contribute
to soil health.
The most valuable things in life
are free, include leaves on that list.