Here in New England, fallen leaves are on everybody’s mind right now. In the past week, heavy rains, gales and even (horror!) the first wet snow of the season have brought just about all the maple, birch, ash and hickory leaves to the ground. Even the oaks, which are usually stubborn about letting go of their leaves, are mostly bare. What does this mean to the average New Englander? What do we DO with all those leaves?? You can’t leave them on the lawn, they’ll form mats that smother the grass and invite diseases. Gather ‘em up and trash ‘em? No way! Leaves are a northern gardener’s most valuable resource and they are FREE! Here on Beautiful Wildlife Garden, Carole has talked before about leaves and the birds and beneficial wildlife they attract to our gardens. Here are some ideas for how to use your tree leaves as a resource to improve your lawns, gardens and the health of your soil, at the same time supporting populations of our most beneficial, valuable, and often invisible, forms of wildlife.
On your lawn, run over fallen leaves with a mulching mower to chop those leaves right back into your lawn. Soil decomposers such as earthworms, millipedes, and other arthropods will get right to work incorporating the shreddings into the soil. Microscopic soil organisms then convert the nutrients into a form that plants can absorb through their roots. That’s free fertilizer right where the grass roots need it! And you can bet that where there are worms, there will be birds such as northern flickers and robins to eat them. Those leaf choppings also encourage populations of beneficial soil fungi to develop, which helps improve your soil’s health and prevents thatch buildup in lawns.
You can rake, mulch-mow or blow leaves right into your garden beds and edges:
The photo above and below are two different views of the same garden. The garden in spring (below) blooms with running foamflower, violet, Virginia bluebells and a young grasslike sedge. All three of these eastern US native plants love deep, moist soils containing plenty of organic matter. Not coincidentally, their natural habitat is under deciduous trees that shed their leaves each fall.
For perennial beds, however, the aim is not to smother your plants completely with leaves. In damp climates such as New England, this may rot plant crowns and, if done before the ground freezes, thick mulches may encourage voles to take up winter residence to dine on your plant roots. The goal is to retain dead plant materials on site as much as possible, to encourage a thriving soil food web made up of the incredible diversity of tiny life forms that all work together to keep your soil alive and healthy.
Many shrubs, woodland plants and most trees enjoy a thick mulch of fallen leaves to blanket their roots and recycle the nutrients from their leaves right back into the soil. Start a new, no-dig, natural-style garden by simply allowing a tree’s leaves to pile up underneath the tree’s drip line for a few years. You can plant in the first year with plugs of shade-loving plants if you carefully dig small holes between tree roots. Or, you can wait to see what native plants will seed in on their own in the leaf litter, spread by birds, mammals, ants and other seed spreaders. Leaf litter is also valuable habitat for many forms of beneficial garden wildlife, including predatorial insects, butterfly caterpillars, springtails, mites, as well as the many birds who scratch around in leaves eating all those bugs and insects.
Be careful with oak leaves. If you have a lot of oak trees that shed leaves onto your property, try not to rake too many of them into your beds. They are large and contain chemicals that make them slower to break down than most other deciduous tree leaves, and they can easily form a mat that rots your plants underneath. Chop oak leaves into smaller bits with a leaf shredder (or run over a pile of them several times with a mulching mower) and use the smaller pieces as a mulch, or add them to your compost pile. You can add whole oak leaves to your compost pile, but even in a hot pile, they may take a year or two to break down.
Smaller yard and garden? You can still use every last one of those leaves that fall off nearby trees!
Rake leaves into big piles in an out of the way spot. Be sure to invite the kids to help out with this. They probably won’t help much with the raking, but they’ll love jumping into the piles and hiding! Sprinkle with the hose or allow rainfall to permeate the leaves to kick-start populations of soil decomposing fungi and microbes that will turn the leaves into an excellent soil amendment called leaf mold. By spring, the pile will have rotted down into a much smaller volume, and you can use the leaf mold at any time to mulch your beds and trees instead of buying mulch.
Create an instant compost pile by mixing 3 cubic yards of brown tree leaves with a 50-lb bag of alfalfa meal (which you can get at any animal-feed store). Speed up the composting process by shredding your leaves first, which provides more surface areas to feed the microscopic soil bacteria who begin the process of breaking them down.
Gather up your fall leaves and store them over the winter:
In the spring and summer, when dry, carbon-based (brown) compost materials are hard to find in the landscape, you can add the leaves to your compost pile to balance out the summer greens that you probably have plenty of, including garden trimmings, vegetable crop waste and vegetarian animal manures from nearby farmers. Leave any small sticks, branches or bark that came in with the leaves. They encourage populations of certain fungi who happen to be very efficient at breaking down tough, hard-to-digest tree materials that take a while to break down.
Pick out any larger sticks, small logs or thick branches and add them to a brush pile, a popular place for some forms of wildlife to seek shelter, protection, nesting and food. Building a brush pile is an easy way to build a very slow-acting compost pile. It won’t heat up and shrink quickly like a compost pile balanced with green and brown materials, but microbes such as fungi, nematodes, bacteria, protozoa and algae rot branches and logs down over a longer period (think years) into rich compost that woodland plants love. During the slow breakdown process, you’ll probably spot birds using the protection of your brushpile, seeking shelter from the elements, building their nests, and feeding on the insects that live on and in decomposing forest materials.
If you’re one of those people who curses the sight of falling leaves, I hope this helps you reconsider your fallen leaves and other “tree trash” as a landscaping asset instead of an inconvenience of living in a region full of beautiful trees! Start using your leaves. You’ll soon learn to love them, and you’ll want to hoard each and every one..
Ellen Sousa is a garden coach and writer living on a 4-acre Massachusetts farm with LOTS of trees, whose leaves feed and mulch her grass, flower beds, shrub borders, pasture and woodland gardens. Whatever leaves are left over are added to the compost pile to feed the hungry microherd. Her book “The New England Natural Habitat Garden” will be published by Bunker Hill Press in 2011.
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