Turning Over Old Leaves

THE REAL DIRT

September 18, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Each fall, I grab my bamboo rake and start cleaning up after the hardwoods in our yard. I don't mind. Raking leaves is an arduous task, but consider the benefits. A mature oak or maple tree can produce $30 worth of leaf mulch a year.

Look at all the money I'm saving by growing my own compost.

I pass the time by singing fall classics such as "Autumn Leaves," or this, my favorite seasonal hit, by the Mamas and Papas:

"All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray,

Think I'll rake the yard on this autumn day,

I'll have lots of compost when my leaves decay,

Cauliflower dreamin', on such an autumn day."

Or something like that.

It's been a darn good summer. We've picked everything from asparagus to zucchini. Most of the flower and vegetable plants performed on cue.

Now it's time to harvest the fertilizer that will feed them for years to come.

Fallen leaves are treasure chests filled with the bounty sought by hungry plants. Dead leaves are bursting with the basic elements nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) that plants need for strong growth. Leaves also contain rarer trace minerals (boron, magnesium and cobalt) that have been absorbed by trees from deep underground.

To gardeners, leaves are manna from heaven. To others, they remain a nuisance to be bagged, berated or even burned. Some people sweep their leaves into the street. Others buy expensive tools that look like hair dryers and blow their leaves into neighbors' yards. Lucky neighbors. Leaves contain nearly twice the nutrients found in an equal weight of barn manure.

Like fresh manure, however, newly fallen leaves should be composted, or at least shredded, before being added to the garden. Some fresh leaves, such as maple, contain phenols, growth-inhibiting chemicals that are released into the soil early during their decomposition. Phenols dissipate quickly, but not until they have affected those plants that are growing nearby. Smart gardeners place fresh leaves in a compost pile for a year until the bad phenols are gone.

Shred maple leaves before using them. I once dumped bushels of whole maple leaves on the compost pile, where they formed a soggy, impenetrable mat that took years to decompose. Other flat leaves, such as birch and elm, will also form wet, dense clumps unless they are chopped up first.

Shredded leaves rot faster than whole ones. Oak leaves are particularly tough characters. Left alone, they take several years to decay into the rich, crumbly humus sought by gardeners. Chopping the leaves greatly accelerates this process, reduces their volume by 80 percent and makes them easier to handle.

There are several ways to chop leaves. Feed them into a high-priced garden shredder, run over them with the car several hundred times, or attack the leaves with a power mower (my favorite method). First, I gather the leaves into one huge 5-foot pile in a far corner of the yard. Then I mow 'em down, starting at the edge of the pile and working toward the center. Back and forth I go, time and again, tilting the mower up and lowering it onto the pile. After several hours, and endless stalled engines, I am left with a small mound of shredded leaves. Much of the debris lands in my hair; you could mulch a small flower bed with the leaves I scrape off my comb.

What it is, is gold dust. Coin-size pieces worth a small fortune to organic gardeners who cherish the stuff.

Each fall, I scoop up what is left of last year's leaves and slather them onto my gardens. Some of this matter is rototilled into the soil; the rest becomes mulch for ornamental plants. Once the ground freezes, the perennial beds are covered with several inches of rotted leaves, which insulate precious plants and bulbs from winter's whims.

No need to remove this mulch in spring; it decays into indistinguishable crumbs and replenishes the soil.

It's a nifty recycling project that's starting to gain national momentum. Not that the concept is new. Forests have been recycling their leaves for ages. And look how large those plants are.

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