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Autumn leaves are a gift.

We may not always appreciate the falling leaves in autumn, but they are one of Mother Nature's greatest gifts. Instead of raking and bagging them, dragging them to the curb and paying for them to be hauled away, they can be shredded and used in the garden now or turned into leaf mold to use next year.

Fallen leaves are loaded with nutrients collected from the soil by the tree's roots. Leaves are also full of fiber -- the perfect amendment to improve the structure and drainage of clay soil.

Using leaves in the garden now

Shredding leaves is quick work with a bagging lawn mower. Leaves can also be raked and put through a garden shredder. A shredder may be a wise investment if composting is done throughout the year. Small branches and plant debris reduced into smaller pieces before adding them to a compost pile decompose into usable compost at a much faster pace.

Use shredded leaves to blanket the vegetable garden after all plant material has been removed to protect the soil and prevent weed growth. They can be worked into the top 6 inches of soil in spring.

Mound shredded leaves over the bases of roses after all foliage has dropped to protect tender crowns. After the ground has frozen, add leaves around perennials prone to frost-heaving to help prevent the freeze/thaw cycles of the soil.

A 1- to 2-inch layer of shredded leaves is an excellent mulch for perennials borders. Thicker layers of leaves can be used to mulch shrub borders.

Add shredded leaves to compost piles. They are a good source of brown material to combine with all the green matter from garden clean up. A good balance of green to brown items breaks down faster into garden-ready compost.

Turning leaves into leaf mold

If you don't already have a compost bin, find an out of the way place in the yard. Shredding leaves first will hasten the process, but it is not necessary. It only takes a few ingredients to make leaf mold -- nitrogen, oxygen, water and, of course, leaves.

Leaves contain very little nitrogen naturally, so add a favorite source. Manure, alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, blood meal and synthetic fertilizers are all options.

Use one part manure to five parts leaves; one-half cup of alfalfa, cottonseed or blood meal per bushel of leaves; or one-quarter cup of a synthetic fertilizer high in nitrogen per bushel of shredded leaves. If lawn grass is still actively growing, fresh grass clippings are an excellent source of nitrogen.

Leaves should be kept as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Sprinkle the pile with a garden hose if rainfall is not sufficient. It's better to err on the side of less instead of more water to avoid a soggy, smelly pile.

It is easy to provide oxygen in a purchased compost tumbler -- just turn the crank. The best way to add air to a pile of leaves is to mix them with a pitchfork every week or so. Leaf mold will result with or without mixing, but it will happen much faster if leaves are turned regularly.

Instead of thinking of them as a nuisance, treat falling leaves as a gift. A gift that protects the soil in winter, improves soil's drainage and reduces weed growth or gives us leaf mold to use in our gardens next year.

* Diana Stoll is a horticulturist, garden writer and speaker. She blogs at gardenwithdiana.com.

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Title Annotation:Home Garden
Publication:Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Date:Nov 11, 2018
Words:574
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