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Gardening Columns

Autumn Leaves are Garden Gold

First published on on October 23, 2008, by Suzanne DeJohn

Many people think only about raking chores when they ponder fall leaves. But savvy gardeners know that these leaves are packed with valuable nutrients and organic matter, and thus are perfect for amending garden soil. Fall leaves are, in effect, a source of free organic fertilizer -- if those nutrients were bagged and sold, you'd pay money for them.

If leaves are so great, why not leave them where they are to nourish the lawn? If there's a thin layer of fallen leaves, by all means mow over them to chop them into small pieces that will decompose quickly, nourishing the soil ecosystem. A thick layer of leaves, however, can mat down and form an impenetrable layer that prohibits water and sunlight from reaching the lawn, smothering grass plants.

You have a few options: Rake up the leaves and add them to the compost pile. Or mow over them to break them up into small pieces; then, collect them using your mower's bagger attachment or by raking them. Use the chopped leaves as mulch in ornamental gardens or in empty vegetable garden beds. Or spread a thin layer over the whole lawn. Or add the chopped leaves to the compost pile -- the small pieces will decompose faster than whole leaves. Or all of the above if you have lots of leaves.

Dealing with fall leaves doesn't have to be a chore. It can be a celebration of the bounty of this harvest season, a time to get outdoors to enjoy the crisp, cool weather, the crunching of dried leaves underfoot, and the unique aroma that tells you that fall is in the air. Raking leaves is great exercise, too.

Here are some more suggestions for making the most of autumn leaves:

Make a big pile of leaves in your front yard -- a BIG pile -- and jump in it. With or without your kids. When your neighbors stop to stare, invite them to jump in, too.

Contact your city or county and ask if there is a leaf composting project in your area. Find out when you can start picking up compost.

Take long walks around your neighborhood and make a mental note of very tidy yards with big trees -- these people surely rake and bag their leaves. Ask if you can have their leaves. (Or convince them to compost the leaves themselves.)

Fallen leaves provide cover for overwintering beneficial insects, such as lacewings and ground beetles. You can serve both your need for a neat garden and the insects' need for winter homes by creating refugia (pockets of special habitat): Bend chickenwire into enclosed, envelope-like shapes, fill them with fallen leaves and sticks, and place them in sheltered locations.

Pile leaves in the paths between your vegetable garden beds. They'll provide a dry walking surface, and next spring you can rake the decomposed leaves into your planting areas.

Add fallen leaves to indoor worm composting bins. They introduce key decomposers, such as springtails and microbes, to the worm bin ecosystem that help the worms do their jobs better.

Use attractive fall leaves, unshelled nuts, branches with berries, and other fall garden treasures to make creative dining table centerpieces. Iron the prettiest leaves between sheets of waxed paper to make them last longer. Then make placecards by writing dinner guests' names on sturdy leaves using a gold or glitter pen, or mount the leaves on matboard and frame them.

Now aren't you excited to get out and face those wonderful, versatile autumn leaves?


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