Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
November, 2005
Regional Report

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Nature knows how to turn fallen leaves into "black gold" for plants.

Fallen Leaves Are Gardening Gold

Cool weather will soon be bringing down the annual deluge of leaves. Unfortunately, most leaves in our communities still end up in trash bags at curbside waiting to take an expensive taxi ride to the dump. By the way, guess who pays the fare?

That is a shame since leaves are such a valuable garden asset. It is no accident that nature provides a blanket of leaves in the fall. Plants need to be mulched and soil needs to be enhanced with organic matter. More than half of the nutrients a tree takes up during the season are in its leaves. When we keep them on our property to decompose and release nutrients back into the soil, they become nature's own slow-release fertilizer.

I enjoy composting and, like most gardeners, I never seem to get enough compost. However, I also like to find faster or easier ways to get things done, especially when it comes to recycling leaves.

Composting Leaves
Here are two ways to turn your leaves into compost with almost no work at all:

1) Rototill a layer of leaves into the garden when you prepare the soil for winter. Spread leaves a few inches at a time and mix into the soil. Then repeat once or twice more if you have enough leaves. If you are going to have raised beds, go ahead and make them now for spring planting. Then cover the entire garden with a thick mulch of leaves and leave it to rest for the winter. Here in the south, our warm winters allow for rapid decomposition. By spring your garden beds will be ready for planting. Simply rake the blanket of leaves off the beds and into the walkways, allow the soil to warm for a week or so, and plant.

2) Use leaves as a garden walkway material. I never have enough leaves, so I collect them from the neighbors (after THEY bag them!) and empty the bags down the walkways in my garden, laying them a foot or more thick. As you walk on them and you get some rain, the leaves will compress significantly, and you can repeat the process several times. I've put several hundred bags of leaves in a 35 by 35 foot garden this way over the course of a year.

This gives me a great all-weather pathway in the garden. In a few months you can rake back the leaves on the surface and find 6 to 12 inches of "black gold," ready to simply scoop up onto the garden beds with a manure fork. If you want to speed up the process, you can run a rototiller down the row once or twice, but this is not necessary.

So keep all your leaves in your yard, and if you have neighbors with lots of trees, the next time you see them out there bagging leaves go offer to do them the kindly favor of taking them off their hands! Take them home and empty the bags into large circular holding bins made of wire mesh, or just stockpile the bags out behind the garage for next spring and summer's gardening needs. It is so easy and it works!

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