Growing Green: leaf composting
The days are growing shorter and the beautiful autumn leaves are beginning to pile up on your lawn. What can you do with all those fallen leaves?
Think of them as a valuable horticultural resource that can help condition your lawn and garden soil, while reducing the volume of your yard waste by 75 percent.
Leaves break down quickly and provide valuable organic matter. After the neighborhood children have jumped in the piles, you can improve the health of your yard by spreading shredded leaves on the lawn, use them to mulch around plants in your landscape, and make leaf mold (compost) for the garden. You also can use leaves to aid in breaking down household food scraps in your compost pile.
Mowing over leaves is one easy option. Shredded leaves break down more quickly than whole leaves. Then they can be used as mulch around shrubs and trees, or left on the lawn after they have been chopped up to decompose under the grass canopy. When mulching around trees, make sure not to let the mulch touch the trunks, and to only pile a few inches thick.
Leaves can also be stockpiled to create a special type of compost, the aforementioned leaf mold. Make a large pile of leaves, contained by pallets or wire fencing, or pile the leaves in an out-of-the-way location. When the leaves break down, they will become a valuable compost to add to garden beds. A six-foot tall pile of leaves will break down dramatically over the winter.
An abundant supply of dry leaves is extremely useful for backyard composting. Balancing the “greens” (food scraps, grass clippings, etc.) with the “browns” (materials high in carbon such as sticks, dried leaves, straw, shredded paper, etc.) will ensure you have the carbon, air spaces, and drainage needed for a healthy compost pile.
If you plan to allow leaves to remain on the lawn, it must be done cautiously and should be confined to only a light covering of leaves. Grass blades should still be visible through leaves before shredding.
Shredding is recommended. Several passes using a mower with a mulching blade attachment will improve your chances for success. Even when shredded, it does not take a very heavy layer of leaves to smother the grass, causing partial die-back, or making it more susceptible to diseases. After mowing over the leaves, it is often necessary to remove at least some of the leaves from the lawn.
One word of caution: leaves from trees with leaf diseases such as apple scab, anthracnose or leaf spot should be removed or destroyed to prevent over-wintering of the disease organisms in the debris and possible re-infection of new leaves next year.
“Growing Green” is contributed by Lehigh County Extension Office Staff and Master Gardeners. Information: Lehigh County Extension Office, 610-391-9840; Northampton County Extension Office, 610-746-1970.