The Art of Leaving Your Leaves

The Art of Leaving Your Leaves

Leaves on MulchOne of the most common questions I get asked here at Soilutions is how do I keep mulch clear of leaves during the fall. After I stifle my desire to remind people that they are working with nature, not with a living room rug, I tell them the truth – there is no quick answer.

When you commit to using organic mulches (e.g, wood and pecan), you are subscribing to a paradigm in which you value the return of organics to your soil.  This means accepting a little bit of life’s messiness. It’s OK. Because it’s really about supporting a dynamic ecological system that performs a remarkable function in your life, not about outdoing your neighbors. Aren’t there more important things to do?

The great thing about using organic mulches is that, aesthetically, they are much more forgiving to leaf litter than gravel mulches or other hardscapes. A smattering of leaves over your mulch is a delightful, ephemeral design contrast brought to you by Mother Nature each Fall at no additional cost. If you combine a little bit of an attitude adjustment with some sensible design and management choices (the perfect combination for any sustainable relationship), you will enjoy a multitude of benefits, including improved soil health, increased biodiversity, reduced air particulate and noise pollution, reduced methane emissions from landfills, and perhaps most importantly, more time for things that really matter.

Here are my top 5 suggestions for managing leaves on organic mulches:

5.  Design your walking areas and paved areas at a higher grade than your planting areas; the wind will blow your leaf litter into your planting areas so you don’t have to do any work at all.

4.  If you crave a tidy appearance, you can always top dress your landscape with a fresh layer of organic mulch after your leaves have fallen and broken down a little. What seems like a lot of leaves now will be a lot fewer after they get wet and start to break down. In most cases you will see little to no trace of those leaves by the time your garden is ready in the spring. Personally, I wait until the elm seeds have fallen in the spring to top-dress.

3.  If the amount of leaves overwhelms the space you have on the ground, there are several things you can do. You can lightly rake them up and move them around your yard for maximum benefit. (Yes, it’s true – you will not be able to grab every leaf without raking up your mulch. If this concerns you, refer back to #4.) If you have chickens, throw your leaves into the chicken coop and watch them quickly scratch it into the soil. If you don’t have chickens, it’s another great reason to get them. Leaves also make wonderful mulch for your vegetable garden; use them to protect and feed your garden beds over the winter. Stockpile your leaves for later use instead of going out and buying organic mulch such as chips or straw during the growing season. If you have a compost bin, use it as your “brown” material to balance out the nitrogen rich food scraps you’re adding. Another alternative is to dig the leaves into trenches. They will be out of sight and slowly break down into your soil. Better yet, dig out a space for a worm bin, and rake the leaves into there. The worms will appreciate their fresh bedding material.

2.  If you have leaves on your lawn, mulch the leaves in place using your lawn mower. Once exposed to moisture, the small leaf particles will quickly disappear, and the microbes in your soil will convert their stored energy into food for your grass.

1.  Get over it! It’s life – a miraculous and beautiful cycle in which plants convert energy into food and return the food to the earth to support the healthy soil ecosystem necessary for life on this planet. Rejoice that you have a piece of land to call your own, and you get to participate in the process!

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