Thursday, December 06, 2007

Make Like a Tree and Leaf!

As you guys know, I'm pretty new both to gardening and to blogging about gardening. So, a couple of weeks ago, I confessed to Janet that I just couldn't think of anything to write about, now that it was winter and I wasn't really DOING any actual gardening. I ended my message to her with a joke about how the only thing I could think about saying on the blog now that fall and winter had arrived was "I HATE LEAVES!"

Janet, being the genius that she is (Hi, Janet! I think you're a genius!), quickly wrote back, not only sending me a lengthy list of topics I might be able to write about, but also to say I was thinking about leaves all the wrong way. They aren't a nuisance you have to rake up and take away -- they're MULCH waiting to happen!

"Wait," I thought to myself, "I could be using the bazillions of leaves covering my entire backyard as mulch? Instead of bagging them up and paying the city to cart them away? Why didn't anybody tell me this LAST year??" And yes, I know all you gardening geniuses are now rolling your eyes and snorting, but I'm a rookie, remember? A NOOB! Cut me some slack, already!

Now, before I get started, I want to make it clear that when I say I have bazillions of leaves in my backyard, I am NOT exaggerating. I'm not describing your usual sprinkling here and there of dainty little pear tree leaves (though, we have those too, of course). What I'm talking about, folks, is the debris from two ENORMOUS big-leaf maples that sit in the far left corner of our backyard. These are trees so tall you can't even see the tops of them, and in the summer, they are covered head to toe with leaves that are about the size of dinner plates.

Every fall, they drop those leaves on the left side of our yard, and before you even notice the weather has started to change, the leaves are already knee-deep. Seriously! I'm not making this up! Last year, we only managed to rake up about 2/3rds of them before winter rolled in (once it starts raining, it's a lot harder for me to deal with leaves both physically and mentally). Just 2/3rds of the leaves from two trees filled nineteen yard debris bags. NINETEEN! Is it just me, or is that not TOTALLY NUTS.

But when Janet said the magic word, "mulch," I suddenly found myself awash in hope. We've only gotten about half our leaves up so far this year -- we've just been too busy (and I've also had some back problems lately that have made lifting wet leaves a lot more challenging). But really, the worst thing about dealing with the leaves isn't the raking -- it's the BAGGING. And now Janet's got me thinking. What if I didn't have to do all that bagging? What if I could just load up a wheelbarrow with leaves and then dump them on my garden beds? What if that was not just easier, but also BETTER? How does this leaf-mulch thing WORK?
Time to hit The Google.

A quick search of "leaves as mulch" turned up a veritable ton of information. As it turns out, so many gardeners use leaves as mulch that leaves are often referred to as "gardener's gold." Gardener's gold! And I've just been bagging them up and sending them to the city compost heap! Man, I'm a MORON!

Not only are leaves a great source of protection and nutrients for plants, but they are extremely easy to mulch, as well. If you don't already have them knee-deep in your yard by the time you begin, you can easily shred leaves for mulch by running your lawn mower over them and collecting them in the grass bag. If you have more than your mower can handle, you can also rent shredders at many nurseries and tool shops (this is what we'll likely be doing, though I also think if we went out early and often next fall with our mulching mower, we might be able to keep the piles from getting too big for us to handle).

Once your leaves are chopped up, you can spread them right on your garden beds and plants as-is (not too thick, please, or else you'll choke your poor babies!). I read that gardeners in the Pacific Northwest in particular often find they can extend their winter vegetables through the entire season if they put a layer of warmth-storing mulched leaves around their plants. Wow! Keep in mind, though, that decomposing leaves are likely to rob your soil of some of its nitrogen. So, if you use leaves as mulch like this, you will want to fertilize your soil in early spring with a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer to try to reestablish a good balance of nutrients in your dirt.

Composting your leaves is even better for your yard, though most sites I read suggest letting them cook for at least two years before using them. It sounds like it's worth the wait, though -- apparently leaf mold turns into a fungus-rich compost that can retain 3-5 times its weight in water, making it even better than peat moss when it comes to keeping your plants moist. Sweet! You need a lot of leaves to make just a little compost, but if you've got the quantity and the patience, it sounds like an even better way to go. I've been interested in trying composting ever since we bought our house a couple of years ago, as we have a really great out-of-the-way spot for a heap or bin. Now that I know it might make it even easier to deal with our leaves each year, I think it's definitely time to start looking into how to get started. So, keep an eye out for a blog post on composting, coming soon!

In the meantime, it looks like the sun might come out up here in Seattle this Saturday, and it hasn't rained since The Flood of Ought-Seven last Monday, so I might attempt a little mowing and mulching tomorrow. We'll see how it goes!

Got any tips on using leaves as mulch, or favorite "get started with composting" web sites to suggest? Hit the comments, y'all! Your resident newbie (um, that would be me) needs all the guidance she can get!


Janet said...

*Blush* Thanks for the compliment.

19 bags of leaves? I'm jealous! I have to import mine from our church. I've also been known to steal bags of leaves from the curb the night before yard debris pickup. One bag even had some hacked-up bergenia in it, which are still growing happily in my yard two years later.

Meg said...

Well, you DO live in Portland, which we drive through every time we go visit my parents (they live in Salem). Next year, we'll load the car up with all 19 bags and leave 'em at your place! :)