Dead leaves, black gold, and a dollop of lasagna

If you are throwing away leaves, you might as well be
throwing away money. Shredded leaf mulch is the best way to retain moisture,
prevent evaporation, and enrich your soil. This year, instead of throwing away
your leaves and then having to buy compost and mulch next year, let them turn
your soil into black gold.

People treat dead leaves like toxic waste, removing them
as quickly as possible. But in nature, leaves remain on the forest floor,
decomposing and adding nutrients to the soil. Unless there are large quantities
or the leaves are huge, they will seldom do any harm just left in garden beds
where they fall. A layer of leaves helps protect perennials during the winter
and can be raked out or dug into the soil in the spring.

One thing you should never do is burn leaves. In addition to being a fire hazard,
burning leaves produce carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, which contain toxic,
irritant, and carcinogenic compounds.
Microscopic particles from burning leaves can reach the deepest regions
of the lung and remain there for months or even years. Smoke from burning
leaves can increase the chance of respiratory infection and trigger asthma
attacks in some people. Accidently
include some poison ivy, and the smoke can be deadly.

Shredded leaves can be composted (put in a compost bin
along with kitchen scraps, frost-bitten impatiens, rotting pumpkins and gourds,
etc.), left in piles to decompose on their own, tilled into the soil, or used
like mulch around trees, shrubs, and in garden beds. If you have a vegetable garden, you can dump shredded leaves
right on top of the bed to improve the soil for next spring. They will cover the bare soil and
protect any cold-hardy vegetables still in the bed. You can even store the
leaves in bags to compost next year, when “browns” (carbon material) for the
compost bin will be harder to find.

You can shred leaves with a mulching lawnmower, a leaf
vacuum or blower with shredding capability, or a freestanding leaf shredder or
chipper. You don’t even have to
shred the leaves, especially if you plan to compost them, but it does speed up
the decomposition process and makes the leaves easier to work with. If you run
a mulching lawnmower over the leaves several times, you can leave leaves right
on the lawn.

An easy way to work with leaves is to rake them onto a
large tarp and then drag them. You can put them through a shredder or just dump
them into a wire enclosure, fenced area, or compost bin. Old pallets wired or
staked together work well also. If you have a place in your yard where you
don’t have grass, pile leaves there for the winter (wet them down to keep them
from blowing). This makes a wonderful home for small wildlife like salamanders
during the cold months. In the spring, the pile will be smaller and you can
either add it to your compost bin or use it as mulch in your garden beds.

And now, a word about lasagna.

For this lasagna you won’t need tomato sauce, noodles, or
cheese, but those shredded leaves will come in handy. Some smart (and perhaps lazy) folks realized that it really
isn’t necessary (and may even be harmful) to till, till, till to create a new
garden bed. Instead, you can pile layer upon layer of organic material on top
of whatever is there (grass, weeds, etc.): lasagna gardening!

You start by putting down a layer of brown corrugated
cardboard or multiple layers of newspaper and wetting it. This will help smother any grass and
weeds underneath. Next, you pile layers of shredded leaves and pretty much
anything else you might put in a compost pile. You can layer in more newspaper, garden trimmings, manure,
straw, peat moss, compost, and so forth, wetting it as you go, until you have a
stack about 18-24 inches high. Now
you let nature take its course. The pile will break down and get smaller over
several months and in the spring you can dig holes right into the “lasagna” to
put your plants in (no need to till). You will find the quality of the soil is
excellent, and you’ve saved a lot of labor.

So take a few moments this fall to appreciate your fallen
leaves. Whether your tastes run to growing tomatoes, nurturing salamanders,
protecting perennials, or creating lasagna, leaves can help. Don’t throw them away!

Do you enjoy gardening? Like to teach others? Want to
volunteer in your community? Consider becoming a Master Gardener! Send an email
to nds13@psu.edu for more information.
And please visit us on Facebook (“Chester County Master Gardeners”).

* Nancy Sakaduski is the Chester County Master Gardener
Coordinator. Master Gardeners are trained volunteers who educate the
public on gardening and horticultural issues. In Chester County, they operate
through the Penn State Cooperative Extension office in West Chester.
Nancy lives in Pennsbury Township. She can be reached at nds13@psu.edu.

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About Nancy Sakaduski

Nancy Sakaduski is a Master Gardiner with Penn State Extension of Chester County.

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