What’s the best way to use leaves in the garden?
Leaves are one of the main ingredients of the dark, rich humus that covers the forest floor — nature’s compost. A gardener can replicate that humus by mixing carbon-rich leaves with nitrogen-rich manure or grass clippings to make compost.
Maintaining an active compost pile in winter can be a challenge, however. An easier alternative is to use leaves in the garden in fall, says Abigail Maynard, associate agricultural scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, who has studied the use of leaves as a garden soil amendment for more than 10 years.
If possible, shred your leaves first with a chipper-shredder or mower; the smaller pieces will break down faster. Spread the chopped leaf mulch over your garden soil, then incorporate it with a tiller or spade. “By spring, almost all of the chopped leaves will be completely decomposed,” Maynard says.
Maynard’s research has shown that amending soil with maple or oak leaves alone probably won’t boost yields the way adding finished compost does, but she says using leaves in the garden does add organic matter to the soil. Organic matter improves soil structure, holds nutrients and moisture that are released slowly to plants, and provides food for beneficial soil organisms.
Maynard suggests adding a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, such as aged manure, in spring. (Nitrogen added in fall could leach away by spring.)
Photo By Superstock/Biosphoto: Boost your soil’s organic matter by using leaves in the garden.
Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on Google+.