Leaves, Glorious Leaves

Soil’s Multivitamin
From leaves to compost: Tips for harnessing the power of nutrient-packed fallen leaves

Your trees are your best friends in summer, cooling your home and spreading verdant shade across your yard. In fall, however, the love affair wanes as they dump a smothering carpet of leaves onto your lawn. How can you make the most of what they bestow upon you?

Well, you know the old saying when you have lemons, make lemonade? The same goes for leaves. Leaves can offer your garden a rich fall snack of nutrients and a warm blanket for the big sleep of winter.

Soil’s Multivitamin
Rosemary Kautzky, a garden photographer, has created eight gardens in five states, ranging in climate from USDA Zone 4 in Monument, Colorado, to Zone 7 in Raleigh, North Carolina. In every garden, in every zone, she has used the leaves from the yard as mulch and compost. "They are like multivitamins for the soil," she says.

In her current garden, an acre-large backyard bowl of blooms in Des Moines, Iowa, she uses leaf mulch on her perennial borders. "I rake them into the grass paths, then grind them up with the mower." She lays a two-inch cushion of shredded leaves on the garden before the winter snows fly.

Kautzky, like many organic gardeners, finds the plentiful (not to mention free) fertilizer and mulch that leaves provide too enticing to ignore. "I use all my leaves, and then I ask my neighbor for hers-she has a two-acre property with oaks," she says.

Fallen leaves hold nutrients for next year’s garden. According to compostguide.com, "the leaves of one large shade tree can be worth as much as $50 of plant food and humus." In addition to saving money on fertilizer costs, adding leaf mulch and compost is also the "green" thing to do. Kautzky calls it natural recycling. When you use your own leaves, "you save all the energy the city would expend in gathering and composting the leaves," she says.

Before you can compost your leaves or spread them on your garden as mulch, you need to collect them. And there are several ways to round up all the usual foliar suspects. If you have the back for it, you can rake leaves. According to the American Council of Fitness and Nutrition, raking leaves for a half hour burns 150 calories. But if you’ve burned a supersize burger’s worth of calories and your yard is still covered, you may want to power up.

Available in both handheld and backpack models, leaf blowers enable you to move your leaves across the lawn into neat piles. For small yards, you can use electric- or battery-powered models; for larger areas, gas-powered leaf blowers allow you to range across your entire yard.

If you have more leaves than you can rake or blow into piles, you may want to invest in a lawn vacuum. The DR Leaf and Lawn Vacuum comes in two series: tow-behind and walk-behind. You pull the tow-behind models with your garden tractor. Perfect for large wooded lots, it gobbles up leaves, pine needles, and twigs with a suction force up to 85 miles per hour. Plus it shreds debris into instantly spreadable mulch. If you have many acres of leaf-covered ground, check into the commercial model, which collects 3,100 gallons of leaves and spits out 310 gallons of shredded material for your garden. Prices range from $1,399 to $2,299.

DR’s walk-behind Leaf and Lawn Vacuum is a great leaf-collection solution for smaller yards, intricately landscaped areas, such as stoned-lined paths and raised garden beds, or hilly areas that are difficult to navigate with a lawn tractor. It vacuums leaves off the ground; its optional 10-foot vacuum hose dips into beds and borders and under shrubs for those blown-in leaves. Prices range from $1,399 to $1,799.

The Cyclone Rake offers three leaf-vacuuming models to pull behind your riding mower. The top-of-the-line Commercial PRO features a 7 horsepower engine with a 415-gallon collection capacity. It folds flat for easy storage, as do the other models. Prices range from $995 to $1,295.

Once you have a pile of leaves, you can put them on your garden as mulch or you can compost them. Either way, it’s best to shred the leaves first. Some collection tools shred as they collect. You can also shred your leaves by running a mulching mower over them. Or you can use a chipper-shredder to grind up leaves and other small yard debris.

The Patriot Model CSV-2515 Wood Chipper Shredder is an electric leaf shredder that sits on two wheels so you can roll it right to the leaf pile. The funnel-type hopper allows you to drop large amounts of leaves into the top. It costs $799. Patriot also makes 4-horsepower and 6-horsepower gas-powered chipper-shredders that are able to chip branches up to 2.5 inches in diameter. After you’ve shredded all your leaves for mulch, you can feed it branches to make wood chips for beds or paths.

MacKissic makes a funnel-feed leaf shredder-chipper, called the Mighty Mac. It comes with either a 6.5- or a 10-horsepower gas-powered engine. The large chute can be packed with leaves while it stands upright or while it lies on the ground. Prices range from $850 to $1,800.

If you want to enjoy leaf-mold fertilizer for your garden next spring, you can compost your leaves. Compost bins and tumblers simplify this job. For example, the ComposTumbler is an off-the-ground drum-style composter. The company offers three models-a standard 18-bushel composter and two 9.5-bushel versions. Prices range from $239 to $429. Mantis ComposT-Twin is a two-bin, tumbling composter. One bin allows you to cook your compost while the other bin accepts green material. Each chamber holds about 10 bushels. The set-up is fully enclosed to keep odors in and rodents out, and it costs $499. 

From leaves to compost: Tips for harnessing the power of nutrient-packed fallen leaves
Dump fall leaves into a composter for rewards next spring. Here are some tips:

o Shred or grind your leaves first. They will break down faster.

o Create custom compost. If you need compost for acid-loving plants, such as rhododendrons and azaleas, use leaves from oaks. They are more acidic than other leaves.

o Don’t forget to add water. Moisture helps the leaves break down.

o Mix in a source of nitrogen. Fallen leaves are high in carbon but low in nitrogen, so add green garden debris or nitrogen fertilizer to facilitate the decomposition process.

o Don’t turn your compost pile in the fall. The University of Minnesota Extension Service says to wait until spring to turn your compost so it can maintain valuable heat over the winter. Turn the pile every three to four weeks in the spring.

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