Well, it’s time to fact the truth, summer is over and it’s officially autumn. Over the past week the trees have begun their annual metamorphosis from their spring and summer greens to more intense shades of red, orange and yellow. Of course, the arrival of fall also means that these colourful leaves will soon tumble from their branches and cover my lawn in a knee deep layer. Don’t you just love autumn?
@$:I’ll admit that leaf raking isn’t my favourite task - far from it - but I do look forward to the bounty of leaves each year. Avid gardeners know that the key to a gorgeous garden begins with the soil. A healthy soil is a living ecosystem that supports a wealth of creatures with some, like earthworms visible in the earth and others like bacteria and fungi too tiny to see with the naked eye. Yet together they create the soil food web and I use our fallen leaves to help sustain and nourish these vital soil inhabitants - for free!
@$:Once the leaves begin to fall, we gather them up with our mulching mower. The blades of the lawn mower shred the leaves and cut the grass at the same time. This carbon-nitrogen mixture of organic materials is then gathered, bagged and stored beside the compost pile until I’m ready for them. All in all, we end up with about 40 bags of leaves, but I know many leaf-lovers who go on the hunt each autumn, gathering hundreds of bags of leaves from the bottom of driveways waiting for the city trucks to pick them up. Why the fuss over autumn leaves? Here are my favourite ways to turn our leaf litter into garden gold:
1. Plant protection - Shredded leaves make a great mulch around perennials and roses. They protect the crowns of your plants from winterkill and also prevent the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle that is so damaging in late winter. For an effective layer of protection, apply a 3 to 4 inch blanket of shredded leaves to the soil surface in late autumn once the ground has frozen. Don’t cover the plants too deeply, which can smother the root system, but instead mulch around them.
2. In the vegetable garden, spread several inches of shredded leaves on top of any empty beds to prevent winter soil erosion. Come spring, these leaves can be simply dug into the soil to enrich the earth and encourage a health earthworm population.
3. Leaves can also be used to extend the veggie harvest season into winter. Apply a 1-foot deep layer of leaves (or straw) to the tops of your carrot, parsnip, beet or leek beds and top with an old sheet or row cover to hold the mulch in place. Then when you’re ready to harvest, just lift the top, push back the leaves and dig a handful of supersweet roots.
4. Turn your shredded leaves into compost by gathering them into garbage bags, adding a shovelful of soil or finished compost (to inoculate with microorganisms), sprinkle with water and close the bags. Poke several dozen holes with a screwdriver in the bag, give it a shake and toss it in a sunny spot to rot down over the winter and following spring. When the leaves have turned to a soil-like consistency, add the rich compost to your garden beds. Alternatively, use the bags of shredded leaves as a carbon source for your compost pile. Just leave a few bags beside your composter and as you add fresh vegetable and garden waste, top with some leaves.
5. Rake a big pile of leaves - prior to shredding - and JUMP IN THEM! Then, follow steps 1 through 4.
Niki Jabbour is the author of the award winning book, The Year Round Vegetable Gardener (2012 American Horticultural Society Book Award) and the host of The Weekend Gardener radio show that airs every Sunday from 11 to 1 pm on News 95.7 FM. For more info, please visit www.nikijabbour.com or follow her on twitter at @NikiJabbour.