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Diane Miessler: Don’t toss those leaves

Diane Miessler

Is your yard still knee-deep in leaves? Are you actively avoiding raking them up by distracting yourself reading “War and Peace” or, worse, vacuuming the house? Maybe this will help.

Try thinking of your leaves as the best soil amendment around. Well, the best future soil amendment. Leaf mold, which is the end result of piling a bunch of leaves up and ignoring them for about a year, holds 300-500% of its weight in water when mixed into soil. This compared to good topsoil, which holds about 60% of its weight.

You can also make great compost with leaves, but this requires a little more work. More about that shortly.

The best, tidiest way to make leaf mold is to form a circle with fence wire; a length about 8-12’ is ideal. Four to five feet high is about right – tall enough to hold lots of leaves but not so tall you can’t throw things into it.

You can also just pile leaves in a heap, although this doesn’t work as well. The leaves are much more likely to blow around, and the edges are not deep enough to rot. And a wire corral looks nicer. If you want to use the pile approach, though, go right ahead – it’s a free country.

Getting the leaves into the leaf corral requires a bit of work. Rake leaves into piles and put them into a plastic trash can or a pop-up bin. You can buy some of those giant plastic-hand gizmos for picking up leaves, but I find it easier to just wear gloves and use the rake and one hand to grab from the pile. Tamp down the leaves with the back of the rake as you go – you’ll be able to fit in about twice as much if you do this.

When the bin is full, carry it to your wire corral and dump about half of it in at a time, wetting the layers down well with a hose-end sprayer; this will greatly accelerate the decomposing process. (If the leaves are already wet, just dump them in.) Repeat until your leaf supply is exhausted, your corral is full, or you need a beer and a nap. You may need to make another corral, but I’m betting one will hold all your leaves – you’d be surprised how much they pack down with watering and gently tamping with the rake.

Now, sit back and wait while the leaves turn into leaf mold. You may want to get a few good books, or maybe knit a sweater – this will take six months to a year.

If you’re a little more impatient, you can make compost instead of leaf mold. For this, you’ll want to shred the leaves first; the torn edges allow decomposing microbes to go to work quickly, and shredded leaves have a greater variety of shapes, making them less likely to mat. One easy way to shred leaves is to run a power mower over them. Or you can put them in a trash can and run a string trimmer up and down through them.

As with all compost, you want about a 3:1 ratio of brown material (dead leaves in this case) and green, nitrogen-rich material. “Greens” can include green garden waste – lawn clippings, spent plants, green prunings – as well as kitchen waste, cottonseed, fish, or blood meal and manure. Alfalfa pellets that you feed rabbits would also work. For more immediate gratification, turn the compost often – up to once a week.

The amount of effort you put into dealing with your leaves determines how soon you’ll have a finished product you can use in the garden, and what that finished product is. Leaf mold lacks some of the nutrients that compost contains, most notably nitrogen, but it’s one of the best things you can use for improving soil structure and water retention. And, once you’ve created your leaf corral, it requires no work. I like that in a project. Especially now in fall when I’m preparing to pretty much hibernate by eating lots of chocolate and going to bed for the winter.

But no matter what you do with them, remember that those leaves are gold for your garden.

Diane Miessler is a nurse, gardener and science aficionado. She lives in Nevada City. Her book “Grow Your Soil” will be out Feb. 18, 2020.

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