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Sunday, November 8, 2015

Leaf mulch--manna from heaven

This week most of the maples on our street dropped their leaves, and the oaks' leaves are starting to fall. This is the last burst of glory before the bare gray and brown landscape of winter sets in. It’s time to make leaf mulch.
Last leaves

            When we bought our house thirty years ago and moved to the suburbs, I imagined that I would let fallen leaves lie on my beds through the winter as mulch. This worked around the fence line, but in more open areas, the leaves wouldn’t stay put. I quickly sensed that neighbors were not happy when leaves blew over from our property to theirs. Local custom demands that yards be absolutely leaf-free going into winter. 
            The reason to use leaves for mulch was not just to divert them from the waste stream. I wanted to keep falling leaves on our property so that nutrients the trees pulled from the air and soil to make foliage could stay here and be recycled. I know that some people have luck grinding up leaves by running a lawnmower over them. This never worked for me, and anyway, I wanted to spend as little time as possible behind the gas-powered machine we used at the time. So I invested in a leaf shredder.

            This electric tool is essentially a string trimmer in a drum. Whirling plastic filaments chop the leaves, and they drop down into a barrel, a bag, or directly onto the soil where they’re wanted. To use the leaf shredder takes some effort, plus goggles, a mask, and wrist-covering leather gloves. It’s loud, and it makes a lot of dust. The plastic filaments wear down and have to be replaced frequently. Sticks clog the drum, so they have to be picked out of the leaves as I feed them in. Leaves that are wet, or even damp, are much slower to process.
            Yet despite the drawbacks, hours spent feeding leaves into the drum prove well worthwhile. The chopped leaves make pleasant, fluffy brown mulch that looks neat and stays where I put it.

Conventional garden wisdom warns against piling mulch against a tree's trunk lest voles or other small animals chew through the bark in winter. That's never happened in my yard.

The leaf mulch lasts for at least a year and improves soil quality by contributing organic matter as it decomposes.
Last year's mulch, almost fully decomposed

            Now I’m in the strange position of not having enough tree leaves. I need more to make the amount of mulch I want. I ask neighbors if I can carry away some of their leaves. They humor me, but they sometimes give me quizzical looks. They don’t know that they’re giving away the garden equivalent of manna from heaven.  

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