Leaves are often referred to as
 "gardeners' gold"

Phyllis Heuerman
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

Their bright green appearance in spring is a harbinger of the beginning of a new life cycle. Their presence in summer provides much needed shelter from heat and rain for wildlife and humans alike, as well as being the vehicle through which trees produce their own food. Their dramatic beauty in the fall can be unparalleled.

In addition, properly used as mulch or compost, they pro-vide outstanding organic matter and nutrients to the soil.

Unfortunately, to use leaves effectively as mulch and compost, they still must be raked or blown from gardens and lawns to control where they are used. Leaving a thick layer of leaves on your lawn or gar-den can create conditions that lead to rotting of grass or perennials beneath.

To start, rake the leaves up into a pile. Once your leaves are gathered, you have a choice between using them under-composed as mulch or composting them before you put them in your garden.

Regardless of how you use them, the first step is to chop or shred the leaves. This will save space if you place them in a bin, minimize their blowing around and matting if you place them in the garden and hasten their decomposition into composted organic matter.

If you do not have a shredder and do not wish to rent one, you can use your lawn mower to shred the leaves. If the leaves are on your lawn, attach a bagger to your lawn mower before you begin cutting. As you cut the lawn, the leaves will be shredded and gathered into the bagger. You may also gather leaves in a pile and run the lawn mower with-out a bagger through the pile. Direct the discharge shoot in one direction at all times so shredded leaves are placed in a pile and not blown all over.

Once you have shredded leaves, you may place them in your garden as mulch immediately. However, do not place an excessive layer of mulch directly on the crowns of herbaceous perennial flowers. This is not necessary, and it can lead to root rot.

If you are extending the season for winter root vegetables, like rutabagas, carrots, leeks, kale or beets, you may use a heavy layer of shredded leaves to cover them. You may find you can harvest these vegetables all winter with this added protection from leaves.

If you use un-composted shredded leaves as mulch in your garden, add some slow-release nitrogen fertilizer to the garden in spring, as the process of leaf decomposition may rob the soil of nitrogen.

Another alternative for shredded leaves is to compost them, either alone or with other organic matter. The simplest but longest process is to place the shredded leaves in a wire bin. Leave them there for two years, turning them occasionally, and you will have a really nice product.

Leaf mold is a special fungus-rich compost that can retain three to five times its weight in water, rivaling peat moss. The Leaf-Gro available in most local garden centers is leaf compost. The only disadvantage of using leaves alone for composting is you will find you need a tremendous amount of leaves to produce any quantity of compost.

Leaves can be used more effectively as a component in a compost pile that contains a variety of organic matter. A good balanced compost pile contains materials rich in nitrogen and others rich in carbon. Leaves can provide the carbon component of your pile. Other good carbon components include straw, non-glossy paper, wood and bark chips.

Good nitrogenous materials include grass and plant clippings, uncooked fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells and coffee grounds. Use shredded leaves and other carbon materials to layer between your nitrogenous materials in a bin.

Turn the pile occasionally to aerate it and ensure it is moist, but not soggy.

It is not necessary to add commercial compost starters or fertilizer to a compost pile to start it "cooking," but doing so may has-ten the process.

The amount of time it takes to produce compost depends upon size, composition and conditions. The process can take anywhere from three months to one year. My small suburban compost bins take six to nine months to pro-duce a fully composted product. I cut the materials I place in piles into small pieces, and I turn the piles about once every three to four weeks.

I find reusing organic materials, such as leaves for mulch and compost, to be one of the most satisfying aspects of my gardening.

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