Its harvest time at the Nursery, the season neighbors speculate on my sanity. A harvest of leaves celebrated by the picture of our 70’ Red Maple on our LocalHarvest homepage & celebrated with the leaves footing Lynn’s vase of native Asters. Though inedible a harvest none the less & a harvest you should join.
Anyone can overwinter a supply of leafmulch. Free, renewable & a rite of fall, why not use them to your advantage? If you don’t have a composter you can fill a garbage pail, an out of the way pile or fill a hoop of wire cloth or chicken wire with what you’ve ground & vacuumed up with the lawnmower. Planting a bed next spring? Put a tarp down & remove the top 2” of soil. Turn in as many leaves (and old wood chips) as you can handle & shovel the tarped dirt back on top. You’ll thank me next spring! The task becomes simpler (and the decomposition process accelerated) if you have a chipper or leaf-blower that vacuums & chips. But no matter the method all you have to do is mix a bag of manure into your leaves to jump start a natural process.
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When Lynn started her business I demanded she buy a chipper. We bought a Troy-Built® & have never been disappointed. Though always composting or digging-in our leaves, I foresaw the economic reality in the amount of soil exiting yearly. I also understood (farm trained to waste nothing) when free is better than what you can buy you use what’s free! And leaves are a perfect example.
The Lady has two consistent planting tips for Woodland Wildflowers. The first — “Place the plant where it wants to be, not where you want it to be!” — a logical deference to their home. Native to deciduous woods they are, as she correctly states “Psychotic Plants” emerging before ‘The Greening’ screaming “Give Me Sun”, & after initial rapid growth proclaim just as loudly “Give Me Shade!”
Her second tip is most times in the form of a question to the customer who does not compost: “Have you finished cleaning you yard yet? If not, dig a larger & deeper hole & fill it with leaves & twigs before placing the plant & refilling the hole.” A better tip though often acknowledged with chagrin or raised eyebrow.
The next time you’re in the woods carefully step off the path. Did you feel the ground compress? If you dig into the soil you will find its structure a yearly stratum of decomposed leaves. Nobody rakes the woods; no one picks up the sticks. This yearly compost layer is why deciduous woods possess such rich soil & support such a diverse, drought tolerant flora.
You can smell this good earth too. It’s sweet, full of microbes happily breaking down the carbon for energy & nitrogen for protein. And it won’t take a close look to find worms also feasting on this mixture, further enriching it with their castings. Take this smell home with you & compare it to your best soils. If you don’t catch a hint of the woods chances are your soil is in need of organic matter. It doesn’t take Lassie’s nose to figure this out.
So each year we ‘harvest’ all our leaves. Every propagation bed is covered with a chipped 2”- 4” layer. Two square-yard composters are filled. And two garbage pails of soil mix, an acid mix & a neutral pH mix, are readied for spring use. But there are never enough leaves which is why the neighbors talk about me . . . . .
I admit it; I’m a ‘Leaf Vulture’. They rake leaves to the curb — at best perplexed to suddenly find them gone; at worst, leaning on their rakes discussing “what the hell is he doing with all those leaves.” Others are converts — the new neighbor who did not understand why I was delighted to clear under his White Pine. He understands now, a convert from the half a garbage pail of double-ground pine needles & oak leaves for his precious Azaleas.
I also proud to admit I’m a ‘Leaf Connoisseur’, unknowing trained in my youth that all leaves are not created equal. I summered with my Aunt in Finger Lakes farm country, allowed basically to run wild. My only jobs: to weed her garden, take care of neighbors on demand, & stock leaves & pine needles & sand & clay & manures for hers & the midwife-herbalist’s extensive wildflower gardens. So when Lynn began bringing her plants home I exclaimed: “I don’t know what it is but I know how to grow it!” Most important I knew my leaves:
· Red Maple leaves are the best, decomposing quickly with that perfect, slightly acidic pH. All Maples make neutral pH leafmold but the Norway & Sugar Maples take longer to break down & should be shredded before composting.
· Oak, Beech, Dogwood & Apple leaves are acidic. Oak & the acidic waxy leafs — Magnolia; Laurel; Rhododendron; Azalea; Bayberry — must be shredded to fully decompose within a year. A 2” fall mulching mixed into the soil the following spring & refreshed will lower the pH a full point. All without acidic fertilizers that inhibit the soils natural bacteria, microorganisms & the formation of mycorrhizae.
· Cottonwood, Popular & Ash leaves will raise the soil pH. When mixed equally with Oak & other acidic leafs, a proper, slightly acidic leafmold will result. If spread unaltered outside the dripline of pines or over their drainage egress, the pines’ acidic affect will be neutralized in two seasons. A yearly application will maintain about a 6.5 pH in all but the most extreme cases.
· All pine needles are acidic & thus take the longest to decompose! [I double-grind the needles, cones & Oak leaves separately, laying them under our pines in an open composter. When I need acidic mulch I scrape the dry top away to harvest the moist decomposed underneath — about three years to a working harvest.] This is my most precious leafmulch, the medium for the growing of Pink Lady’s- slippers, Clintonia, Trillium erectum & T. undulatum.
· Eucalyptus, Laurel, Juniper & Hemlock leaves / needles remain toxic & are harmful to soil life. Do not use!
· Walnut leaves can be composted. The toxin breaks down in about a month when exposed to air, water & soil bacteria. [The best guide to Black Walnut Toxicity being the Fact Sheet from Ohio State University.]
Now I could talk endlessly about the 25-30:1 Carbon-Nitrogen ratio but all I’m suggesting is overwintering leaves for use as an organic supplement or topdressing next spring. The addition of manure — adding soil microbes — will maintain the decomposition process through winter. [For a full explanation, read ‘Home Composting Made Easy’ excellent explanation of the Carbon-Nitrogen Ratio.]
Leaves are free, natural, a renewable resource & we have to rake them anyway. No matter what soil you add them to — clay or sandy loams, peat, bark or coir based commercial mixes — all benefit. Increased growth, moisture retention & ease in weeding are readily apparent. Even if only used as a top dressing, weeds still have a harder time establishing since they prefer hard strata.
So have I another convert?