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Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

Turn Fall Leaves into Nutrient-Rich Compost

Autumn is finally here and soon it will be bringing much cooler temperatures (much appreciated after a long toasty summer) and plenty of falling leaves. If you happen to have trees such as Chinese Pistache, Liquidambar, Ash, Crape Myrtle and many others that grow well in the High Desert, you’ll have the added bonus of spectacular fall colors before the leaves drop to the ground. When the leaves do finally drop, think about recycling them into mulch or compost rather than putting them in the trash.


Leaves can be a great benefit to gardens and landscapes because they hold a number of nutrients that can be released back into the soil for plant use, thus reducing the need for added fertilizers. According to Compost Guide, “the leaves of one large shade tree can be worth as much as $50 of fertilizers and humus. Pound for pound, the leaves of most trees contain twice as many minerals as manure.”

Using the leaves as mulch or compost not only adds the additional nutrients to the soil for use by plants, they also help to keep the soil warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer, helps the soil to retain moisture so you don’t have to water as often, and shades the ground preventing many weeds from growing. If you happen to be using needles from pines (or the leaves from oaks), you can get the added benefit of adding a little acidity to the soil for plantings that struggle with the High Desert’s alkaline soil.

There are a number of ways to collect the fallen leaves — leaf vacuums, blowers, mowers, and if you want to be “green," the old-fashioned rake. You can also help out your neighbors and collect their leaves as well. The leaves release their nutrients and break down best if they are ground up or shredded, so running them through a mulching mower or chipper-shredder does the trick.


Once the leaves have been shredded, you can place the leaves directly on the ground around your plantings as a protective mulch. Or better yet, since the leaves are more likely to blow away here in the High Desert, you can place these high-carbon leaves in a compost pile or bin and mix with some green garden or kitchen scraps (vegetables, coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, etc.), manure, blood meal, cottonseed meal, grass clippings or nitrogen fertilizer, add some water and stir or turn periodically and have a nice batch of nutrient-rich compost for your spring garden. If the pile is not heating up, you might need a little more nitrogen-containing ingredients. For additional help in getting the pile to heat up, especially in the cooler months, you can cover the pile with clear plastic sheeting.

Now you know you can enjoy the leaves of your trees all year long — from the beautiful new spring growth to the great shade they provide during the summer heat, from the incredible fall colors to the nutrient-rich compost and mulch made from the fallen leaves.

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