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These leaves are lovely on the tree, and a valuable resource for gardeners once they're on the ground. Photo: Brian Mann
These leaves are lovely on the tree, and a valuable resource for gardeners once they're on the ground. Photo: Brian Mann

Many reasons to cherish the fallen leaves

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This year's brilliant fall color display is fast giving way to the second annual leaf event: Raking season.

Few people will say raking is their favorite outdoor chore. But in their weekly conversation, Amy Ivy tells Martha Foley there are plenty of reasons to cherish those fallen leaves, and more than one way to deal with them.

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Reported by

Martha Foley
News and Public Affairs Director

This summary only contains a portion of what’s in the audio interview. For the full interview, click “listen with NCPR player”.

Fallen leaves can be too much for some, but for a lot of people the leaves are a valuable resource. You can mulch bigger leaves like maple with the lawnmower and put them in the compost pile or garden for use in the spring and summer.

Amy Ivy says she thinks of leaves “as this treasured resource.” Ash tree leaves are good, because they are already small so they don’t have to be mowed. And there are never as many leaves as you think: “You make that pile and it’s a huge pile, and it seems like a large volume, but if you notice, within a day or two it shrinks down to about half its size.”

To make your own mulch from fallen leaves, you need to contain the leaves in some way, like a compost pile. “The easiest thing is if you can contain them in some way, even just wire fencing, you know like dog fencing, just to make a big round bin helps a lot. You don’t have to have that, you could just pile them, but when you pile them, they tend to spread out more and more, and they don’t stay in a nice high pile.”  

A principle in decomposition is the smaller the particle, the more quickly it will break down, because the organisms can attack, there’s more surface area fort he volume of the particle.” That’s why it’s a good idea to break up larger leaves with a lawnmower. Then you can just pile the leaves, Ivy says, and “just sit back and wait. You really don’t need to do anything else just to make leaf mold, is what decomposing leaves are. And just let it sit until the next spring and then you can start spreading that around.”

The leaves can then be used as “a mulch on your garden, you can dig it into your garden soil, before you plant your garden in the spring, you can use it under shrubs; I mean you can use it almost anywhere. And that volume will go from a full bin to maybe a quarter of the bin by spring time.

“Nut trees [including oaks] have tannin in their leaves, which resists decomposing. Because of this, they’re not as good for mulching. Ivy says Butternut leaves can be raked under shrubs or a hedgerow, but oak leaves can’t. Oak trees are very nice to have, but their leaves resist breaking down to the point where if you just raked them into your garden, you could dig it up in a couple years and find the leaves.

“If that’s what’s anyone has an abundance of, they are definitely going to want to mow. You really, really do need to mow oak leaves in order to help the micro organisms get at them. And you might consider throwing in some grass clippings that will provide some nitrogen that will help feed those microorganisms as they do their work in breaking down the oak leaves.”

What about pine needles? They’re said to acidify the soil, because there is a notion that pine trees only grow where the soil is acidic, but “it all depends on what the soil is like as to what the pin needles will be like.”  

Pine needles don’t break down quickly. “If you put them in your compost pile they’ll still be there, but they’ll be providing the carbon side of the mixture of things in a compost.

“I love them as a mulch in the garden, I think they’re great. The water can get down between them. Some people don’t like them, so if you don’t like them, you don’t have to use them, but I think they are great.”

The chipper shedder is another option if you’ve got woody stocks, and little branches, not just leaves. Also watch out for day lily leaves—Ivy says they clog “everything” up.

Tuesday at 3 p.m. Martha Foley and Amy Ivy will be doing a live call in for gardeners. You can send your questions to martha@ncpr.org, or call 1-877-388-6277.

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