Turn Leaves into Gold

By Skip Richter

These golden leaves can be turned into "black gold" for the garden. They make great soil-enriching compost or a protective mulch.

The annual deluge of leaves has begun, a sure sign that fall has fallen upon us and what we call winter here in the south is just around the corner. We are now in the middle of yet another "leaf season." Before you head outside with rake in hand let me suggest a few time- and money-saving ideas.

How about if we start with a Madison Avenue "infomercial" advertising approach:

Want to save $$$ on fertilizer, trash bags, and mulch? Interested in an organic, 100% natural plant fertilizer that's absolutely FREE!? Yes, you heard it right...FREE!!! Turn trash to treasure while saving time and money! Here's how:

The Natural Cycle

During the growing season, a tree's leaves perform the vital role of photosynthesis, converting energy from the sun into plant sugars to sustain growth. But their job doesn't end there. When they fall onto the soil surface in autumn, the leaves deter weeds, reduce erosion, improve infiltration of rainfall, prevent surface crusting, moderate soil temperatures, and, when they decompose, return their nutrients to the soil.

Invigorate Soil Organisms

As leaves decompose they invigorate the living organisms of the soil, improving nutrient levels, soil structure, and drainage. With the addition of this organic matter, sandy soils hold water and nutrients better, while clays develop better aeration and drainage. So it makes sense to allow some fallen leaves to remain in perennial beds, to renew and enrich the soil. On lawns, however, a thick layer of leaves can smother grasses and encourage disease, so it's best to remove most of the leaves. If the scattering of leaves is light, a pass with the lawn mower will chop them into small pieces that will readily decompose.

Pile collected leaves in vegetable gardens; over the winter the leaves will begin the decomposition process. In spring, pull remaining leaves aside to plant, then replace the leafy mulch to conserve moisture and suppress weeds.

Many Uses in the Garden

Each year we recycle all our tree leaves, plus over a hundred bags from the neighbors, into "garden gold" -- compost and mulch. Once you get into leaf recycling you just can't seem to get enough. We use the leaves throughout upcoming year in a variety of ways. Some are saved for mulching the summer garden. Others are composted for use in potting mixes and to build new soil beds. Some we mix directly into the soil to break down over winter months. By spring they are mostly decomposed and the enriched soil is ready for planting. Each year the soil just gets better and our gardens more productive.

Don't Rent Fertilizer

Fallen leaves are worth their weight in gold for your landscape and garden. They are full of the nutrients your trees took up all season. If you bag leaves for curbside pickup, you're just throwing away free fertilizer. Instead, put those leaves to work for you. They are free, organic, slow-release fertilizers -- the way nature was designed to work.

Skip Richter is the NGA Regional Reporter for the Lower South.

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