Because of pottery-grade clay soil, my garden is built as raised beds, a foot deep and 10 or 8 feet long. I bought fertile mix, which is a blend of sandy loam and composts, to fill them, and have been maintaining their organic matter locally for 16 years. When I first began gardening, I tried to grow cover crops, but they always failed. The red clover was eaten by mini-slugs soon after emerging, and, the one year I did raise a good stand, I had to pull it out just as it was covered by feasting bees. After we acquired chickens and the chicken tractor, cover crops were no longer an option—but I discovered something far simpler. Leaves.
Every October, I gather leaves from our block. Property maintenance workers blow the leaves into the street to be collected by the city, which then delivers dump truck loads to local gardeners and farmers. I cut out the middle person and truck them into the back yard myself. When the piles arrive—hopefully on a dry day, because wet leaves are messy—I grab the extra municipal recycling cart we stow in the back yard for these moments and my flexible leaf rake, lock the cats into the bedroom so they do not roll in the street, and head out. One cartful of leaves, pushed down fairly firmly, equals one garden-bed’s worth of mulch. Load, tamp, roll, and dump. Load, tamp, roll, and dump. Ten trips covers the vegetable garden of the winter. Four or five more fill in the flower and herb beds. After dumping, I spread them over the entire surface if it's barren, or work them around the few remaining plants if it is not.
Just leaf mulch worked well, but having the chicken tractor really improved the quality of the organic matter. Our coop is sized to fit directly on the garden beds; it is four feet wide and five feet long. When there are two chickens, we shift it from one end of the bed to the other. When there are more, we build a little run so that they have the entire bed during the day and are closed in at night. The Ladies spend the day rooting around, shredding leaves, eating bugs, and leaving behind some fine poop, which helps break down the leaves and bedding straw. When I shift the coop to the next bed (usually once a month), I quickly turn over the entire plot with a pitchfork, increasing the contact between organic matter and the soil.
By spring, the leaves are broken down into a rough seed bed. I push some aside and plant the starts in the soil, snugging the mulch around the roots. Leaves continue to break down until early summer, increasing the fertility of the gardens. The oldest garden beds are soft and friable throughout the growing season and the plants are lush. Leaves—the miracle mulch.