Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
November, 2000
Regional Report

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Walkway composting of leaves between raised beds is a great way to use leaves in the garden and provide a dry walkway as they decompose.

The Many Uses of Leaves

Here in the South we are in the middle of yet another "leaf season." Before you head outside with rake in hand to clean up the latest leaf fall, let me suggest a few time- and money-saving ideas.

Leaves as Feed

Approximately 75% of the nutrients a tree takes up during the season are stored in its leaves. When you fertilize your landscape, a portion of that fertilizer is used to make leaves, which are then shed in fall. These fallen leaves represent a natural, organic source of nutrients for your landscape. If you bag them for curbside pickup, you're wasting fertilizer.

Natural Leaf Cycles

In natural settings such as forests and meadows, we see the leaf cycle operating as it was designed. Leaves drop and collect as mulch around the base of trees, protecting soil from crusting, erosion, temperature extremes, drying out, and compaction. In time they decompose, slowly releasing nutrients for the growing plants.

Mow Leaves

The simplest way to recycle leaves is to mow over them. It's amazing how fast and effective a mower can be at chopping up leaves so they seem to disappear into the turf. Mown leaves will not harm turf and actually can benefit it by mulching thin grassy areas and discouraging weed seeds from sprouting. Since I started using this technique, I find I do very little raking.

A mulching mower works great, but in my experience, so does a standard mower. Set the front wheels a notch or two higher to allow leaf litter to enter the mower housing. Mulch leaves (and grass for that matter) only when the yard is dry, as wet materials will quickly clog the mower.

Leaves as Garden Mulch

Another method of leaf recycling is to collect them for garden mulch. With a mower, blow leaves into windrows for fast, easy collection or attach a bagger to the mower and partially shred and collect leaves. Mulch flower and vegetable gardens with a 2-inch layer of leaves. Give shrubs and trees 3 to 4 inches. If you have any leaves left over, which is unlikely, save them to replenish mulched areas when the weather gets hot in June.

Leaves as Compost

A third leaf recycling technique is composting. There are numerous approaches to composting including composting in traditional heaps and bins. Walkway composting is my favorite, as it requires the least effort and allows more compost to be produced right in the garden. After building raised beds, fill the walkways with leaves. Add leaves once or twice more as they settle with time and foot traffic. In a few months you'll have a thick layer of compost beneath the leaves on the surface. Before the next planting season you can reform the raised beds using the freshly made compost from the paths.

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