Leaves, Beautiful Leaves

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Leaves, Beautiful Leaves

I should carry around a sign stating “Will Work for Compost” for I do every autumn, and other than my labor, the compost I make is free.

Leaves, those once beautiful, but now brown, tree appendages start to fall just about the time we’re ready to plant cabbages, pansies and bulbs. Oaks, which make up the majority of the native, deciduous trees in central Oklahoma, have the toughest, most fibrous leaves I know of, but if you rake and shred them, they can become a gardener’s best friend.

In my fair state, Interstate 35 is the demarcation line between the short grass prairie and the beginning of the deciduous forest. I live east of that line, in an area called the Cross Timbers known primarily for blackjack oak and post oak, but also, cottonwoods, Mexican plum, elms, black hickory and other woody vegetation. By mid-November, my lawn and front flower beds are covered with leaves. However, blackjacks (Quercus marilandica) retain their leaves into winter so a second round of raking occurs in late winter or early spring.
If leaves aren’t removed, they smother shade grass like fescue or perennial rye and smaller herbaceous plants. However, if leaves are shredded, they make splendid winter mulch, great compost and an even better outdoor, seed starting medium. In a state like mine, your soil hungers for good compost. If you have clay, over time compost will loosen it. If you have sandy soil, compost will improve its ability to hold moisture and nutrients. After six months of sitting, shredded leaves will crumble in your hand, becoming pure, black gold which requires no screening.

Why do leaves work? In forests, they fall to the ground and decay bringing nutrients and beneficial fungi to the understory, where ferns and other shade loving plants grow. Can’t you just feel that springy forest soil under your feet? By shredding your leaves, you’re simply helping nature do her thing more quickly.

I use my two trusty rakes and the roomy thirty gallon HardShell® Kangaroo® Gardening Container. I like the larger leaf rake for the lawn and the more, narrow shrub rake for the beds as it can maneuver around established plants. Both are made of aluminum which is one of my favorite materials for garden tools. It’s light weight, and if I accidentally leave a tool outdoors, it doesn’t warp or rust.

Ornamental cabbage with leaves

After raking, I take the container of leaves and dump them into a large, heavy duty plastic trashcan. I put on safety glasses and use my string trimmer to shred them. Then, I either put the leaves back on the garden beds as mulch or into large piles. These piles break down and are used throughout next year’s garden season. If I incorporate leaf mold with the soil in a planting hole, plants seem to settle in sooner and thrive. Further, a layer of it on top of seeds in the spring encourages germination. If you don’t want to use the leaf trimmer idea, you can mow over shallow leaf piles and collect them in the bag attachment.

So, when you rake your leaves this fall, don’t put them in trash bags. Instead, keep them out of the landfill and use them for their original purpose to improve the soil in your garden. If you do, just consider the bounty from your garden a pat on the back from Mother Nature herself.