Autumn leaves are a nuisance to most homeowners. They are lovely to look at while still attached to the tree — especially when pretty red and golden tones are backlit by the sun — but as soon as they land on the ground, littering lawns, driveways, balconies and other unwanted nooks and crannies, they become yard work. Even for those who don’t mind collecting and bagging leaves on a crisp autumn day, there is always a risk of straining otherwise amicable neighbourly relations if leaves are left to blow onto adjacent properties, especially those meticulously raked clear of leaf debris or if noisy, air polluting machinery is the chosen method of handling fallen leaves. And then there’s the strain that hours of raking and bending can have on backs.
Gardeners have a more positive view of fallen leaves because they know their value in helping build a healthy lawn and garden. Leaf litter, experts agree, helps sustain long term plant health by returning nutrients to the soil they came from and keeps gardens ecologically balanced by providing a habitat where earthly creatures (like butterfly larvae, beetles and arthropods) can overwinter or become bird food, plus so much more.
It seems senseless to expend energy raking, piling and disposing of this organic leaf ‘waste’ only to be picked up by a municipal truck and recycled into compost elsewhere, then spend money on commercially produced soil amendments that will be applied to vegetable and flower gardens the following spring. We needn’t be so wasteful.
We can make use of at least a portion of the leaves falling on our properties to help benefit our gardens for free. Raked off lawns and onto vegetable gardens and perennial flower beds or where soil is bare, leaves serve as a valuable mulch to insulate soil and plant roots from winter’s fluctuating temperatures. Leaves also absorb water from thawing snow and spring rains, releasing moisture to plants when needed most.
Chopping leaves up with a lawn mower before spreading them onto garden beds will reduce their volume, prevent leaves from matting together, and help speed their decomposition while also giving them a neater appearance. Native woodland plants especially benefit from this kind of natural leaf mulch.
Rake leaves onto ferns, Jacob’s ladder and Solomon’s seal, winterberry, dogwoods and serviceberries or under mature conifers where they cannot be seen. Leaves can also serve to insulate overwintering perennials and shrubs in pots using layers of dried leaves surrounded by chicken wire.
Don’t be turned off by the name; leaf mould looks and smells like sweet smelling soil. Left in hidden piles or in plastic garbage bags, with plenty of moisture and time, fallen leaves naturally shrink into a reduced pile of leaf mould, a mineral-rich amendment that will boost soil’s water retaining power better than any bagged, store-bought soil will.
Another way to use fallen leaves is to simply toss them into the compost pile where they will provide the carbon required for proper decomposition. Leaves also make great bedding for indoor vermi-composts. Remember that composts requires a healthy balance of brown, carbon rich materials to green, nitrogen-rich materials (by a ratio of 3-1). Any extra leaves can always be tucked away within reach to add to the pile whenever needed.
So stop feeling stressed about fallen leaves. Ditch the noisy blower, grab a rake and use them to your advantage on your property to save money for next years’ garden preparation. Or, at least offer them to gardeners who appreciate their value.
Elaine Sanders can be reached at www.solutionsjardins.com