Who can resist the beauty of leaves in the fall? Summer green leaves turn colors not seen in a year. Trees become giant bouquets to rival any collection of flowers. As the final leaves on a tree turn they pause: a group having one last moment together. Then one lets go, several more let go and drift away followed by the others scattering, collecting somewhere down below.
On the ground, the leaf collection has a scent, sharp and musty. Colors fade and turn to crunchy brown. And it’s time to gather them up. Where to next?
Leaves raked and left on the curb wait for municipal collectors to haul away for community compost. A good way to recycle. But leaves can stay closer to home. How about free food for the garden? Here are three ways to use the once colorful autumn leaves.
1. Compost them.
Rake them up. Use the power mower and collect with the bag attachment. Blow them into a pile with a leaf blower. However they’re collected dump them into the compost bin ready to decompose for next year’s fertilizer.
Raking benefits: good exercise, no pollution.
Lawn mower with bag benefits: covers large areas, leaves collected in one motion and ready for compost, completes the task in shorter amount of time compared to raking.
Leaf blower benefits: while noisier, moves leaves into piles faster than raking.
2. Leave them directly underneath the bushes or trees where they fall.
In the forest, leaves decompose where they fall creating nutrients to feed plants in the woods. They provide cover for birds and other small animals, create a living environment for insects. Leaves also act as mulch protecting plant roots from freeze/thaw. They capture water and retain moisture.
The same is true for the plants in the yard. Create a woodsy result with the plants’ own fallen leaves. A light layer of leaves will decompose over winter. Be sure to avoid mats or clumps of leaves. Thick mats of leaves promote disease. Spread the bounty with the rake. Move some to other areas that didn’t get any leaves.
3. Collect a thin layer of leaves on the lawn and run the lawn mower over them.
This cuts them into small pieces that will fall between the grass leaf blades and decompose to feed the lawn. Again don’t leave mats or clumps to smother the lawn.
Saves money on lawn fertilizer.
Tips for Composting
- Compost looks like rich dark earth. It crumbles well in hand. It often has worms moving through it.
- Find a location out of the way and in line with local government zoning laws. The area should be in full sun and drain well – no standing water.
- Use yard waste like leaves, cut grass from the lawn, perennial flowers that were cut back, annuals that have finished blooming for the season, small branches from shrubs. While adding yard matter cut larger material into smaller pieces so they break down easily. Material will fit better into the bin.
- Use the brown and green rule: add both dead or dried up plants and fresh materials like weekly grass cuttings. One to one ratio is considered best.
- Keep diseased plant material out of the pile to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria. These items can go in the garbage.
- Keep weeds out. They may not break down fast enough to kill roots or seeds.
- Tree branches take a few years to decompose. Best to leave them out. They take up space, don’t break down much in a year. Some cities have curbside branch removal services where they collect and shred branches for mulch for community use. Rent a shredder and make mulch for the yard.
Consider having two bins. Since collection is year round, one sits with last year’s material decomposing in it. The other collects new material. The goal is to have compost ready from one bin to spread around in autumn. Rotate between the two: one for this year and one for next.
Here’s how it works: add new material to the first bin through late winter – early spring, then stop. Let it rest, so materials have time to break down. Shift to the second bin in spring to add new material and collect in it until late winter – early spring the next year, then stop. Every autumn, remove the compost from the resting bin. It should be ready to feed the plants’ roots.
The first year may not create much. Don’t worry. What’s on top may not have time to break down. If the top material doesn’t look like good earthy soil just transfer it to the second bin. This should expose the ready to use compost underneath.
What Kind of Compost Bin to Use?
One kind is not a bin: simply pile up yard material in an out of the way spot in the yard. It might blow away in the wind or wash away by rainwater.
A second kind: buy bins. Make sure they are large enough to hold more yard waste than what’s planned. It can take a year for a pile to break down. The material when first put in can be bulky and awkward even when cut down – it’s not a smooth pile.
A third kind: Make a bin. Bins can be made out of almost anything: used pallets or old boards hammered together (no treated wood – toxic), stacking cement blocks or bricks. Straw bales create a quick solution for a year but break down too and can be added to compost.
A simple bin to make is a metal post and chicken wire bin. Plan to make two – it’s easier to access the compost if not buried under the newer non decomposed material.
Three easy ways to use fall leaves after the color show is over. Composted leaves feed the garden crowd for next year’s display. An end becomes a beginning.
Copyright 2018 Juli Seyfried