Leaves offer wealth of nutrients

When the snow finally starts to clear in spring, the first thing I look for is a patch of exposed forest floor…

When Jed from the Beverly Hillbillies discovered oil in his backyard, he had his version of black gold, Texas Tea – but Grannie was likely in the backyard garden sifting through her finished compost pile knowing she had her version of black gold and compost tea!

When the snow finally starts to clear in spring, the first thing I look for is a patch of exposed forest floor, grab a handful of the rich humus and breathe in that heavenly scent of fresh earth. Healthy soil is the stuff of life – it’s alive and teaming with untold billions of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, microbes and worms.  More microorganisms germinate in half a cup of fertile soil than there are humans on the planet, so we want to make lots of it to use in our new gardens and as a soil amendment for your existing ones!

Making good soil and mulch is my primary goal every year and I make loads of it in the fall by filling up five big bins with nicely layered materials for the worms and microbes to digest over the winter. This requires bags and bags and bags of shredded leaves, grass clippings and wood chips (a great carbon-nitrogen mix) along with whatever else I can get my hands on that isn’t too big in size. This amounts to a lot of hard work that occupies most of my time until the snows, but it’s always worth the effort because I’m rewarded with crumbly, partially digested mulch in springtime, and if I leave it a little longer, finished soil for the summer and fall.  By having a number of bins, I’ve covered all my needs and there’s plenty left over if I need it.

This kind of volume requires planning, so I horse trade a tree service guy for a pie in exchange for a load of chips and keep a big stash of dry grass I had mooched over the summer wherever I could find them (usually under the trees in vacant lots or people’s yards), which I keep in bags until the leaves come down. Then I’m in constant motion until the bins are all filled up and covered, which is usually a race against time before my hose freezes.

Leaves in the fall are beautiful! There is a tree in town that turns such a bright yellow that it looks as though it glows, and the maples that turn red look like they’re on fire.

It is such a pleasure to rake up those lovelies under the vibrantly colored canopies, all the while knowing that they’re going to be put to good use rather than off to the dump like so many do, which is such a terrible waste!

Leaves are a wonderful, free gift of nature and a great source of organic material for our gardens and compost, and that’s not all. They’re great to mow into your lawn for a natural fertilizer and a soil builder-upper. By spreading them on your garden beds and around your trees, shrubs and perennials in the fall, they will offer a protective cover by insulating the roots from the driving rains, frost and harsh winter conditions as well as providing vital food and habitat for a huge number of insects, worms and other critters that dwell in the soil. They will also discourage winter weed growth.

During the growing season, the leaves break down, enriching the soil by adding organic material and providing a natural fertilizer. The leaf bits help aerate and retain moisture in your soil, absorb the heavy rains to prevent nutrient leaching, help to prevent erosion and, most importantly, will provide plenty of food for the micro and macro critters in the soil food web, who in exchange, will give back by converting that raw material into nutrient-rich soil.

I like to mix up shredded leaves with fresh grass and woodchips for nutrient diversity, which is always key.

The author of the Gaia College workbook writes: “The look of bare earth, free of all “debris,” is perceived to be beautiful and proper, and yet it’s the worst thing that can happen to a landscape. I am envisioning a time where a gardener’s competence is gauged by the quality of the soil litter layer!”

So when we hear the rustle, it’s time to hustle. Spring for a chipper or leaf shredder because the smaller the bits, the faster they break down and they don’t mat like they do when they’re still whole.

Use dry ones if you can too, otherwise they can gum up the machine and slow down the process considerably. I shred up all I need to fill the bins with the other materials, then shred a bunch more so I can keep layering them into my food compost bin throughout the year, along with the woodchips and fresh grass clippings and a sprinkling of clean sand for minerals.   Just make sure you have sufficient moisture between the layers or it won’t cook down properly.

It must have been a gardener who created the design for our Canadian flag, because leaves are truly a national treasure and they should be treasured by all of us.


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