Mulching with Leaves

The leaves have dropped from our largest heartnut tree. Behind the cob greenhouse, overlooking the top duck pond, the heartnut stands prominent in any easterly view from D Acres’ kitchen. Just the other morning, once the sun crested the trees and the shadows diminished, it was like a seeing an old friend in new clothing: it warranted a second take. 

See, the leaves fall seemingly at once, like a bed losing its blanket or a dog shaking snow from its back. With the heartnut, there is no slow denouement of a season, no gradual turn from summer’s vitality to autumn’s beauty to November’s starkness. Rather, it is a clear and concise statement, an act of assurance: Now is the moment, today is the change. 

And so it was this year. Overnight, in fact, it happened. Just a few days prior, the butternuts performed the same act of decisiveness. 

Now the heartnut and butternut leaves join the kaleidoscope of bold and colorful maple, birch, beech, ash and the occasional oak leaves covering the ground. A natural mulch, rich and multihued, the leaves will serve to protect the soil. Slowly decomposing back to soil and enriching the woods floor or garden edges where they fall, they are exemplars that lead us in our work to build soil fertility.

While leaves across the property are left intact, in situ, for this very reason, leaves along our roadside are a different matter. Fated to clog ditches and drainages, linger in culverts, and be tossed by ambitious snowplows, we sequester these leaves for higher purposes. 

We start by hitching up the trailer and tossing in rakes and all available hands. Leaf raking is an all-day affair here, sometimes multiple days. Up and down the roadside we march, raking piles large enough to fulfill everyone’s inner child. But it’s not time for jumping just yet. One overflowing armful at a time, we pile the leaves into the trailer. Someone earns the enviable job of stomping down the growing heap, while those remaining squat, lunge, gather and heave the piles into the trailer. A tremendous quantity can be packed within the slightly askew wooden sides. 

From here the leaves are deposited into caged piles strategically close to our various garden zones. Leaves will be used as part of our fall mulch, mixed with straw to create a powerful nutrient package. Not only will this protect the garden beds through the coming seasons, this leaf mulch will also contribute to the ongoing process of increased soil fertility through the continual application of organic matter.   

Most of the leaves gathered, however, are not destined for immediate use. Rather, the hustle of a couple of days will come to fruition after a year of patience. Left to sit for 12 months, these leaves will be partially composted by next fall season, when they will once again be spread about, applied to garden beds across the farm.   

Mirroring the process of humus creation within a woodland ecosystem, the input of leaves to our garden system is an essential means of building soil fertility. You, too, can do this: Leaves do not belong in plastic bags, nor the back of trash truck, nor a backyard fire pit. Money may not fall from trees, but good soil can be found beneath them.  Is that not more valuable? 

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