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Turning Leaves Into Mulch



Leaves left around a tree's base can be beneficial to the health of the tree.
Leaves left around a tree’s base can be beneficial to the health of the tree.

Golden leaves carpet the ground. They crunch beneath one’s feet while walking blissfully through the woods. It soothes one’s troubles. We forget our cares.

There exist all kinds of psychological theories about why we enjoy being out in nature, especially during Indian summer. One is that we were all primitive hunter-gatherers before our tribes evolved into kingdoms with farms and cities. Another has to do with brain chemistry changes. Is it the quiet, the escape, or the ability to set one’s own pace?

How about Relaxation Therapy? I remember an encounter group intently watching a colored leaf slowly fall. Inwardly, I scoffed.  But one day I actually watched a translucent red Japanese maple leaf float gently to earth in the setting sun. I hate to admit it, but it was good.

The Japanese, who spend a lot of effort trying to mitigate their stresses (so many people on such small islands) always plant a red maple on the western corner of their gardens, with a seat beneath. To savor the warm rays of the setting sun and watch its light through its crimson canopy.

Watching leaves may be like meditation, but while it clears the mind, unfortunately it clutters the backyard. Golden leaves crunch on the lawn, in the garage, the ground cover, under the shrubs, a beautiful fall carpet that eventually has to be dealt with.

It used to be someone raked them into huge piles which children jumped into. My grandfather burned them in an exciting, smoky blaze, which is now a polluting No-No. Today we have blowers that woosh them into huge brown paper bags, which the  town picks up, and disposes of, somewhere, at a cost to the tax base.

But there are alternative ways to deal with leaves, to lighten the workload and help the environment by letting them decay into useful compost. A little thought helps decide which to throw out, which to leave on the ground, and which to compost.

First which to throw out. Any plants that exhibit diseases or suffer from insects need sanitation. Roses are obvious (fungus). Others are iris, peony, summer phlox, raspberries, fruit trees. Put out with the garbage. Not in the compost pile.





Which can be left in place? Ground covers don’t need to be raked or blown out, and actually are more healthy if leaves are allowed to naturally decompose and feed their roots. As they fall, it may seem too deep a blanket, but wait a couple of months and see how most disappear before blowing. I haven’t touched mine in 40 years.

Under healthy trees and shrubs leaves should also be left, to decompose into mulch. (Why pay for 3 inches of new wood chips?) The larger the circle under a tree, the better. Normal root spread is easily twice as large as the canopy dripline.

Old beech trees really benefit from this, as their leaves provide the microscopic organisms absolutely necessary for their survival. Never plant grass under an old beech. It destroys them.

Some varieties of leaves mat down badly and so should be removed, now or in spring. Worst are maples. Oak leaves, however, stay dry all winter and are a protective winter mulch. In the spring, beds can be neatened up and covered with a sprinkle of cosmetic wood chips.

Finally, you can make a real compost pile using leaves and grass clippings.  Takes some work, but each foot of leaves decomposes down to a few inches of good organic compost ready to be used in spring.

Misc. Fact: An acre of oak forest drops 2 1/2 tons of leaves. Pines drop 3 1/2 tons of needles. (They make the soil acid. Good for raspberries and rhododendrons.)

Credit: www.mothersgarden.net