Leaves: Love Them All Year Long

Leaves. We truly have a love-hate relationship with them. In the spring, we cheer to see tender leaf buds open into full leaf. In summer, we cheer the shade these leaves provide. In fall…we hate the leaves with all our hearts.

Such a shame. Can’t we figure out some way to love our leaves, all year round?

It takes thinking about a whole bunch of things a little, tiny, bit differently. Think about it. Would you throw away a brand-new car if one happened to come your way? Of course not. It’s so obviously useful. And free! So why do you throw away your leaves? Those very things you loved so much last spring?

Here’s a few great things to do with those free leaves. Most will, on top of being free, save you money, too.

Mulch. Leaves make great mulch. You can simply place them whole, as is, on your mulched areas, but you’ll get better results if you shred them. If you don’t have a leaf shredder, rent one or consider buying one (you’re going to make up the cost in savings on all that mulch you’ve been buying). Or, do as many have done with expensive but seldom used tools – get together with neighbors and buy one to share.

Once you’ve placed the leaves, shredded or not, on your garden beds, spray them down with some water to ‘set’ them. This will make them heavier, reduce the air in between them all, and keep them from blowing in the wind. They’ll break down fairly quickly, so you can place next year’s leaves right there, too. Meanwhile, you’ll notice that your plants seem stronger and healthier. Leaves are great compost…does it get better than this?

Make leaf compost. The British, famed around the world for their fabulous gardens, depend on leaf compost to support their magnificent blooms (they often call it “leaf mold”). This compost is great at maintaining moisture in the soil, partly due to the fungus, so your plants will be less stressed by drought than otherwise.

Leaf compost is simple to make. You can make it by placing shredded leaves on your garden beds and waiting, and/or you can pile the leaves up and wait. The process is quicker if you shred the leaves first, but the magic will happen in any case in a pile of leaves. Many people make chicken wire “cages” for the leaves and simply load it up every year. Once this compost is spread about the gardens – this is great for your veggie garden, too – you’ll watch almost magical plant growth.

Leaf piles are great fun for kids. Leaping into it can provide hours of joy and healthy exercise. You may have to rake it a bit to straighten it out again afterwards, but the children’s fun is well worth the effort (maybe you can get them to help rake it up afterwards. Tell them they’ll want the pile tomorrow, too).

Make a new “no dig” garden bed. Pile your leaves where you’d like a new garden bed. Make it a big, heavy pile. The heavy “mulch” will suppress grass and weeds. Because the leaves are composting, they’ll improve the soil as they break down. In a year or so you’ll have a brand new garden bed with wonderful soil. If you’re impatient you can move the leaves and plant right in the new bed. You may have to pull a few weeds around your new plants, but oh well…

Lawn Lover’s Stay Green Lawn. Shredded leaves are great for lawns, too. Allowed to remain on the lawn, shredded leaves break down (as they always do), providing compost and maintaining moisture in the lawn. Joyfully, this means you don’t have to rake up the leaves. Run the mower back and forth over the leaves and you’re done. You’ll save money with less watering and you won’t need any fertilizer – the leaves are great compost for grass, too.

Store root vegetables. Use dry leaves to pack root veggies. “Layer” a box with a layer of dry leaves, a layer of root vegetables, another layer of leaves, etc. Root vegetables can keep for months with this treatment. Some folks use their leaf piles as a giant storage bed for root vegetables. Keep the veggies at least six inches above the ground and at least six inches from the top – in other words, use the center of the pile. It’s an ancient food storage technique that has fallen out of fashion in our technological world.

There are hundreds of crafts you can enjoy, but they’re not likely to use all your leaves. You’ll have some left over for a leaf pile, never fear!

Maureen Rice is a Master Gardener in Talbot County. A lifelong naturalist, Ms. Rice enjoys writing and research when she’s not playing in the dirt.

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