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Garden Guru: Putting autumn leaves to work in the landscape

By John Porter
John Porter
Leaves are piled at the curb in Kanawha City waiting for the city truck to vacuum them up.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Since you went away the days grow longAnd soon I'll hear old winter's songBut I miss you most of all my darlingWhen autumn leaves start to fall"-- "Autumn Leaves," written by Johnny Mercer, sung by Nat King ColeWe revel in the colorful autumn splendor of the trees that cover the West Virginia hills and adorn our landscapes. Tourists come from miles around to take in the beautiful fall display. Last week on the way to a conference in Iowa, I had the fortune of sitting next to a lady from Mississippi, who, on a whim traveled to West Virginia with her husband to take in the fall colors.A few weeks ago, I explained (in detail) the process whereby leaves change color and eventually fall. But that color eventually fades, and the leaves fall, and -- they leave a mess!In the woods, the leaves form an important part of the forest floor ecosystem and soil web. The leaves provide shelter to small critters and creepy crawlies from all walks of life. They also begin the slow process of decomposing there on the forest floor, feeding millions of fungi and bacteria, which slowly process the leaves into rich, earthy forest soil. This soil is what feeds the trees and all manner of plant life and makes the diversity of forest life possible. The forest feeds itself; the trees don't need us to fertilize them, they do it themselves.
In the landscapes that we humans manage, however, it is a different story. We like to keep things looking neat and tidy. Leaves on the ground equates to litter on the street or dirt on the kitchen floor to many homeowners. When the first leaf falls, some people rush out to rake the yard almost compulsively throughout the fall. Some of us take a more leisurely approach to leaf wrangling and wait until all of the leaves have fallen before raking them up. I call it efficiency, others may call it being lazy.Then there is the question of what to do with the leaves once you have raked them or blown them into a pile. You don't want to just leave them there. In Charleston, there are two options: raking them to the street curb or bagging them and putting them with the trash. One option is better than the other in Charleston, but neither is my favorite.In Charleston, leaves raked to the curb are vacuumed up by a vacuum truck that visits neighborhoods from time to time throughout the season. These leaves are taken to the municipal composting facility and turned into nice compost that residents can buy in the spring (buying their own leaves back). With the bag option, it is my understanding that the bagged yard waste is not composted, but taken to the landfill. This means taxpayers foot the bill for something that can be usefully composted and reused either on the municipal or home scale.My preferred option of managing leaves is by using them at home. The forest "circle of life" can be a good lesson here. We can mimic that by reusing the leaves around the landscape. Now, I'm not saying you shouldn't rake the leaves in your yard and just leave them there to compost on their own (but wouldn't that be so much easier?). There are ways to use those leaves to the benefit of your landscapes and gardens that really can help reduce waste and improve soil health.Leaves, of course, are great for compost. Compost happens when you bring brown stuff (dried leaves) together with green stuff (kitchen scraps, weeds, cut grass) in the presence of air and moisture, and the fungi and bacteria (microbes) that eat it. It isn't an overly complicated task. Mix your leaves with a little bit of green stuff in a pile or compost bin and let it work its magic. If you don't have enough green stuff for a big batch of compost, stockpile leaves in those bags or under plastic until you do. The compost can be used to amend the soil and make your garden even healthier.Leaves can also be used as a mulch for vegetable and landscape beds. Leaves can be layered on top of the soil to conserve moisture and suppress weeds. This usually works best if you have some way to chop up the leaves, say with a blower/vacuum, so that the bigger leaves don't blow around the lawn. The leaves will decompose in place and either be covered with fresh mulch in the landscape or worked into the garden bed to finish composting. Those with mulching mowers also have another way to use leaves -- just mulch them into place right in the lawn. The shredded leaves will provide nutrients and organic matter for the lawn.Don't want to compost or use your leaves, but don't want to bag them and send them to the landfill? Ask your gardening neighbors if they need leaves for their composting and mulching. I get leaves from my neighbors to improve the health of my gardens each year, so you might just have a neighbor who would love to take your leaves. Just remember, that one man's trash is another man's compost.
John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.
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